Two distinct mainstream narratives about the internet really stand out. The first worries that too much digital media will erode our moral fiber. The second describes the web as if it were a great equalizer. Both of these narratives end up looking pretty absurd when considered alongside a study from the Joan Ganz Cooney Center at Sesame Workshop.
Hardly anyone explicitly protests that digital media will erode our moral fiber. Still, that is certainly the implication. Each time someone complains about smartphones at the dinner table, or bad grammar in text messages, or the opaque superficiality of social media, they are framing the internet as if it were like Satan the serpent himself, tempting us to take a bite from the apple of frivolity.
They worry that civilization as we know it will crumble due to changes in the etiquette of communication and relationships. Some of these fear mongers even get tricky; they try to present screens as a legitimate pediatric health concern. Make no mistake about it, even the notion of “good health” only exists in context. All medical recommendations reflect specific historical and cultural biases about what it means to live well and enjoy a good life.
Beneath every worry about “too much screen time,” there rests a simple and predictable resistance to change. In fact, each era’s technological innovations are accompanied by the same moral panic: the fear of losing our habitual ways of being. A generation of parents struggle to see how their well-worn identity narratives can be maintained within the context of a life lived with new tools—and they, understandably, project that same anxiety onto their children.
Parents often forget that what is “comfortable” is not necessarily the same as what is “right.” And they barely notice that because they cling to definitions of personhood that are dependent upon the tools of particular times, they also mistakenly attempt to hold their children accountable to developmental ideals that are only relevant within obsolete contexts.
Take that fear of overexposure and compare it to the story about web-equity. I’m talking about the innovator’s fairy tale which revels in the positive power of the internet as civilization’s great equalizer. Consider how it gets caught up with our familiar love of the underdog story.
For example, if you listen carefully, you can hear a celebration of web-equity in the myth of the heroic YouTuber who becomes a superstar in spite of the fact that big media conglomerates hold a monopoly on our entertainment industry. Read between the lines and you’ll find it in each aspirational rags-to-riches news features which chronicles the making of an Etsy or eBay fortune. It’s lurking in the promise that with fiber-optic cable, an Intel chip, and clear understanding of computer science, you might have mined your way to wealth in the early days of the BitCoin gold rush.
In truth, however, behind each of these entrepreneurial daydreams, there’s an old fashioned Main Street landlord assuring would-be tenants that page views are the 21st century equivalent of foot traffic—pay rent so the customers will pass you by, then all you need to do is reach out and grab them. In the same way that Uber and AirBnB try to sell virtual feudalism as “sharing,” these modern day Ponzis are selling serfdom as equity.
By the way, this is the same fantasy of equal access that is being promoted each time we anecdotally highlight the way political campaigns—like Howard Dean’s (2004), President Barak Obama’s (2008/12), and Bernie Sanders’ (2016)—have managed to fundraise in small increments by leveraging the grassroots power of social media. And, of course, this is the story that underlies the entire education technology industry’s promises to reduce the socio-economic academic performance gap by developing learning games, inexpensive apps, and cloud-based assessment tools that students can access from the comfort of their living rooms.
It turns out that both of these narratives—which are concerned with issues of exposure, equity and access—are way out of whack. When you look at Victoria Rideout’s and Vikki Katz’s report, Opportunity for All: Technology and Learning in Lower Income Families, it is clear that a huge chunk of the U.S. population is under-connected. That means they really can’t be over-exposed, nor can they take advantage of the opportunities that saturate a supposedly equitable web-economy.
“Most low- and moderate-income families have some form of Internet connection, but many are under-connected, with mobile-only access and inconsistent connectivity.” 23% of American families whose income falls below the median level, and 33% below the poverty level, rely on mobile-only Internet access that’s not dependable. A fast desktop or laptop computer with a good broadband connection is just not financially feasible for many Americans, so they’re stuck with internet that’s too slow (52%), shared by too many family members (26%), cut off for lack of payment (20%), and/or reached the data limit in the last year (29%).
Despite admirable efforts (such as President Obama’s “ConnectHome” initiative) to provide more equitable access to broadband, discounted internet programs like these are still reaching very few people. Only 6% of eligible families are taking advantage of such resources. And the data gets even more disheartening when broken down by race and ethnicity. “Families headed by Hispanic immigrants are less connected than other low- and moderate-income families. One in ten (10%) immigrant Hispanic families have no Internet access at all, compared with 7% U.S.-born Hispanics, 5% of Whites, 1% of Blacks.”
Use of the World Wide Web, it seems, remains far from equitable. This means it is probably a stretch to assume that our society, on average, is over-exposed. And it is even more absurd to imagine the web as if it were some sort of equalizer. Let’s be crystal clear and say that again: the human race as a whole is not on its way to becoming a bunch of anti-social cyborgs. And the way we are implementing networked digital technologies is not helping to create an even playing field. Instead, it is reinforcing the disparate socio-economic lines along which opportunity, information-exposure and cultural alienation has been distributed for centuries.
I suspect that when most of us think about what it means to be under-connected, all of the news media, information, and data that we encounter on a daily basis comes immediately to mind. When studies like Rideout’s and Katz’s highlight the divide between the under-connected and the adequately-connected, we all acknowledge how it will inevitably lead to a widening skills gap—particularly when it comes to computer skills like writing code and using sophisticated business software. We also probably recognize the advantage that some students enjoy in more traditional academic subjects just because they have the tools to easily complete their homework without needing to visit a public library or a coffee shop with free Wi-Fi.
But that’s not the whole issue. Parents of adequately-connected computer-savvy children should also consider just how much time their kids spend interacting with PC games like Minecraft and tablet games like Little Alchemy. Recognize that while your children are playing, they are also learning to be comfortable in a connected world. They’re developing the confidence to easily operate and experiment with digital tools. They are experientially applying higher order thinking skills within virtual environments. And therefore, they are also becoming acclimated to subtle social cues and nuanced behaviors that will ultimately make them easily identifiable as the privileged, the cultured, and the elite. They’re procuring habits-of-mind that will eventually draw the line between the insiders and the alienated.
At the end of the day, remember that child development and education are both always about how young people learn to make use of language, knowledge, and academic content within the context of lived experience. Although we often think of “context” as if it were some sort of abstract cultural or historical zeitgeist, the reality is much simpler. For humans, context is all about how we use a particular sets of tools to intellectually, emotionally, economically and materially fabricate our world. Lacking exposure to those tools is like being locked in closest for most of your childhood.
If we can’t figure out a way to equally distribute the context, then all the other well-meaning social, economic, and educational initiatives can’t succeed either.
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