Victoria J. Rideout
Vikki S. Katz
Publication Date
February 3, 2016

Joan Ganz Cooney Center at Sesame Workshop

"Substantial digital inequalities still exist....Among youth, being under-connected [to the internet] means that critical opportunities to develop creative projects, take advantage of educational media, explore extracurricular programs, and complete homework, are limited."

This paper explores the current uses of digital technologies to help promote educational opportunities for all through a national (United States, or US) phone survey of nearly 1,200 low-income parents of children ages 6-13 and in-person interviews with lower-income, Hispanic families in 3 communities located in Arizona, California, and Colorado. Recent research on digital media use points to two important gaps in educational opportunity for low-income families with young children. First, there is an access gap. Second, there is what scholars refer to as a participation gap, in which digital resources are not well guided or supported to ensure educational progress. Despite these barriers, many low-income families are using media and new technologies in creative ways to support their children's pathways to success and to strengthen family relationships.

The vast majority of low- and moderate-income families have some form of online connection, and use digital technology for a range of purposes from doing homework and connecting with schools to looking for jobs and applying for services. Even among the economically poorest households, 9 in 10 families do have some access to the internet, but in many cases that means dial-up or a mobile data plan. (In many cases, people have only a single internet-connected computer or, quite often, mobile-only internet access through a smartphone or a tablet. About half say their internet access is too slow, and one-quarter say too many people share the same computer.) As early as in 2013, the U.S. Census Bureau reported that phones were reducing historic internet use disparities among different racial and ethnic groups. Similarly, smartphones became the gateway to the internet for many less wealthy Americans, and surveys like Pew still find people with lower incomes to be more heavily dependent on their smartphones for Web access. What has resulted, however, is that one-quarter of lower-income families with children in school have only a mobile device for internet access. Among families living below the poverty level, the proportion rises to one-third. And it is highest at 41% among immigrant Hispanic families in particular.

Children from low- and moderate-income families use computers and the internet for a variety of educational activities, but those without home access are less likely to go online to explore topics and ideas that interest them personally - what educators sometimes call interest-driven learning - which can prevent them from cementing, say, an interest in a musical instrument or developing another expertise. These are factors in thinking about how the homework gap is much broader than just regular homework. Also, teachers are increasingly asking students to be creative, to be artistic, and to demonstrate skill sets that are not only about reading something or watching a video but also doing something with that. This type of work can be a challenge on a small screen without a keyboard.

The primary obstacle preventing greater equity in access and digital participation - at least among families with school-aged children - is financial. Four in 10 parents without a home computer (40%) or home internet access (42%) say the main reason they do not have these items is because they are too expensive. One in 5 families says their internet has been cut off in the last year due to lack of payment, and nearly 30% say they have hit data limits on their plan. "If we're asking kids to go home and watch a video and Mom and Dad are on a measured plan, well that's going to pose a problem," says Ernesto Villanueva, an executive director and former teacher and principal at Chula Vista Elementary School District in San Diego County, California, "because Mom can't have you watch three of those high-intensity videos and then she no longer has access for the rest of the month." Many free and low-cost connectivity programmes have not bridged the under-connection divide, according to the researchers. They often offer slow internet access - e.g., an Ethernet cord to one device - and no simple way to add WiFi service. (If there's no WiFi at home, a tablet would have to rely on a mobile data plan, posing its own challenges like data caps, weak connections, or shared access with multiple family members.)

Unlike with previous surveys, in which interest in the internet access varied generationally, this survey shows that only about 4% said internet access is "not important". Most parents feel comfortable and confident with technology, and they have an overwhelmingly positive view about the advantages it can offer their children. Parents and siblings are serving as resources for one another to learn how to engage meaningfully with digital tools.

The researchers conclude by saying that they believe that the challenges to connectivity that the study has showcased are solvable. Policymakers can address these issues with well-crafted policies that promote the right incentives and supports for families, they argue. They also suggest that policymakers develop approaches that build on families' existing assets. "Lower-income families are too often only discussed in terms of constraints like limited formal education, income, language proficiency, and tech-related skills. Our findings uncover the kinds of family strengths that can be more strongly supported by well-crafted digital equity programs and policies. In particular, we find that family members are resources for each other when it comes to learning about and through technology." Among families in which the parent and child both use the internet, 77% of parents say they have helped their children with using digital technology, and more than half (53%) say their children have helped them. Said one parent of a fifth grader in Arizona: "We're a team, and we achieve things together. When I don't know something, my wife helps, or we ask our other son. We solve the problem together. In that aspect, technology has helped us, because it has made us closer."

For more information on this research and access to videos from a February 3 2016 Washington DC forum on the study and report, click here.


Joan Ganz Cooney Center website and How Limited Internet Access Can Subtract From Kids' Education", by Alina Selyukh, New Hampshire Public Radio, February 6 2016 - both accessed on May 26 2016. Image credit: Will Kincaid, AP