The New York Times dredged up a 2-1/2-year-old study to kick off a flurry of reporting about a new digital divide. The old digital divide had to do with access: Disadvantaged populations had less. Now that pretty much everyone can get online, the Times reports on a flurry of activity to ensure low-income families are digitally-literate so their children don't get sucked into a vortex of online time wasting.
A study published in 2010 by the Kaiser Family Foundation found that children and teenagers whose parents do not have a college degree spent 90 minutes more per day exposed to media than children from higher socioeconomic families. In 1999, the difference was just 16 minutes. The study found that children of parents who do not have a college degree spend 11.5 hours each day exposed to media from a variety of sources, including television, computer and other gadgets. That is an increase of 4 hours and 40 minutes per day since 1999.
Taken in aggregate, these statistics raise an alarm. Taken separately, though, I'm not so sure. While I won't argue that spending more time zoned out in front of the TV can be a detriment for kids from lower-income and less-educated families, I question whether other media exposure isn't actually a competitive edge.
Take games. According to the Kaiser Family Foundation study, Hispanics between the ages of 8 and 18 spent 1:35 playing games on a console player, cell phone or handheld player. Blacks played games for 1:25. White kids spent 56 minutes with games. From an education standpoint, children of parents with a high school diploma or less spent 1:17 with games. If their parents had some college, they spent 1:07 playing and if their folks had a college degree, then spent 1:11 zapping aliens, planting virtual crops or flinging pissed-off birds.
In the supposed worst case, Hispanics between 8 and 18 playing 1:35 each day. That's a total of a litte more than 11 hours per week. According to studies from university reserachers and the U.S. Army Mental Health Assessment Team, playing games for up to 21 houors a week "can produce positive impacts on your health and happiness," game expert Jane McGonigal wrote in a Huffington Post column.
But when you hit 28 hours of gaming or more, the time starts to distract you from real life goals and other kinds of social interaction that are essential to leading a good life. Multiple studies have shown it's the 21-hour mark that really makes the difference-more than 3 hours a day, and you're not going to get those positive impacts. Instead, you'll be at risk for negative impacts-like depression and social anxiety.
The most time wasting with games, then, represents less than half the amount of time you'd have to spend with gaming before it became detrimental. That means those underprivileged kids spending more time than their better-off peers are actually benefiting from their game play. McGonigal notes:
When we play a good game, we get to practice being the best version of ourselves: We become more optimistic, more creative, more focused, more likely to set ambitious goals, and more resilient in the face of failure. And when we play multiplayer games, we become more collaborative and more likely to help others. In fact, we like and trust each other more after we play a game together-even if we lose! And more importantly, playing a game with someone is an incredibly effective way to get to know their strengths and weaknesses-as well as what motivates them. This is exactly the kind of social knowledge we need to be able to cooperate and collaborate with people to tackle real-world challenges. The good news about games is that recent scientific research shows that all of these feelings and activities can trickle into our real lives.
It's equally easy to argue that time spent on social networks is not wasted time. The Kaiser Family Foundation study saw black children spending two minutes more per day on social networks than their white counterplarts, while Hispanic kids spent 10 minutes more. Those whose parents had a high school diploma or less spent 21 minutes on social networking, while those whose parents attended some college spent 32 minutes and those with a college degree spent 18 minutes.
Again, this is practice that will serve lower-income kids well as they move into academic and work environments that will rely more and more on social networking.
There are other reasons to question the notion of a digital divide based on time spent online. MIT's Technology Review interviewed Jessie Daniels, Associate Professor of urban public health at Hunter College and CUNY based on a series of tweets critical of the Times report: "Affluent white men (to vastly simplify) and their habits of access and use end up being the standard against which everyone else is measured, so that when there's any difference from that pattern, it ends up getting read as 'bad' or pathological somehow. The framework of 'digital divide' also encourages us to assume that certain categories of people (everyone other than white males) are somehow less technologically adept."
There's nothing wrong with wanting to raise digital literacy, but arguing that the time spent online by non-white populations is somehow putting them at a disadvantage is a flawed assumption. It could, in fact, provide them with a competitive advantage. As the American population shifts to a non-white majority, online gaming and networking may well help level the playing field for segments of the population that previously lacked access to the resources it took to get ahead.