A Wasted Analysis of Poor Kids and Digital Divides

The New York Times has published yet another infuriating piece on poor kids.

Yesterday’s article Wasting Time is New Divide in Digital Era is is almost breathtakingly sloppy.

After the “sky is falling” headline, the article reports that kids from “poorer” families waste “considerably more time” on media than kids from more well-off homes. Without missing a beat — or presenting a shred of evidence –the author, Matt Richtel, declared this time  is “wasted time”.  And then in an amazing leap, he concludes that  class differences in media use are “a reflection of the ability of parents to monitor and limit how children use technology”.

The sole source cited for this conclusion about parenting is the white principal of a middle school in Oakland.  Prominent on the home page of the website of this school is a link to the school’s Accelerated Reader quizzes.   Accelerated Reader is a “read and answer multiple choice questions for points” computer platform has been widely criticized by literacy experts and others as a shallow program that may actually discourage good reading habits in children.  In other words,  it may well be a waste of money and classroom time.

But I digress.

Readers of the NYT article have to get through several more paragraphs before learning that “considerably more time” is the difference between 10 hours a day and 11.5 hours a day.  You’d have to read even deeper into the article to find out that in the (unnamed) Kaiser study that is the basis for the article, data collectors “double dipped”.   In other words, if  a kid was listening to music while surfing the web after dinner, she was credited with two, not one hour of media time.

So imagine:  A child in a low-income home sharing a bedroom with at least one sibling who slips on earbuds to drown out distracting noise, or another using the home’s one computer as others are watching TV in the same room, or a child who didn’t spend after-school time being driven from soccer to lacrosse practice and instead spent that time watching television — each of these would count as evidence of poor children falling behind their privileged peers because they are “wasting more time” in using more media.

Yet the sloppiness runs even deeper.

Richtel never supports his key assumption that any time on social networking sites, watching videos, or playing games is inherently “wasted”.

He includes an ominous quote from danah boyd about  all of this, but never mentions that boyd was co-lead of one of the major anthropological studies of the social connections and informal learning happening in kids’ uses of new media.   He seems not to have bothered to Google any of the intriguing new studies that go beyond “hours spent”  to look at what kids are actually doing with media, including emerging work on how media is shaping kids civic and political engagement, and on the complex informal learning often happening in gaming.

Make no mistake: there are serious digital divides: Poor kids have less access to broadband at home and at school.  In schools, access to the most basic tools depends entirely on the wealth of the district (or the fundraising savvy of parents).  Most seriously, perhaps, poor kids are not being taught the new media literacies required for full participation in contemporary life.

The Kaiser study on kids’ engagement in media is important.

But it is not a study of the relative merits of childrearing in poor and middle-class homes.

And it is not a study of what poor kids are doing on line –full color photo of the  ethnic, hapless, self-described “Facebook freak” notwithstanding.

Several of the hundreds of people who commented on the article (many of them bashing poor parents)  made an excellent point: everyone who commented on a New York Times article was essentially wasting time in front of a computer.

And as I write on this social media site, I’m streaming radio in the background and have my Iphone next to me, waiting for a text.  I read the article on-line while similarly multi-tasking.

According to Richtel, this is obvious evidence that I’ve “wasted” at least three hours of time.

Of course I did.  My parents didn’t go to college so could not have educated me to do otherwise.


One thought on “A Wasted Analysis of Poor Kids and Digital Divides

  1. momsomniac May 31, 2012 / 8:30 am

    Reblogged this on db mcneill – Momsomniac and commented:
    Social bias disguised as science is still bias. This is a well-argued analysis of the cited article (and it would apply to so many others as well).

    This issue is personal to me, yet so subtle to those for whom it is not personal. Are there social assumptions rooted in subtle bias that touch you personally? Who do you think speaks on them most clearly?

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