"Technology-handling skills" and "the app gap" are catch phrases among early childhood educators these days. Low-income kids, the argument goes, are disadvantaged by inadequate exposure to tablets and other new technologies. But as Matt Richtel pointed out in the New York Times recently, children from low-income families spend more time handling technology—across platforms—than their wealthier counterparts, and across class, kids mainly use their "handling skills" for entertainment. They play games, watch videos, and visit social networking sites. There are documented gaps in the education of low-income children—for instance, in vocabulary and reading—but research shows that the time young kids spend with technology takes them away from activities known to be educational—hands-on creative play and interaction with caring adults.
"The digital divide" was coined in the 1990s to address inequalities in Internet access. Now it's used to push digital technologies on ever younger children. There are tens of thousands of allegedly educational apps on the market for preschoolers. The National Association for the Education of Young Children is working with Hatch, an ed-tech company, and the Fred Rogers Center to encourage the use of digital devices in early childhood settings. Every week we hear about some benefactor donating iPads to needy kindergarten classrooms. While there's scant evidence that anyone but the companies who make, sell, and advertise on these new technologies benefit from the time young children spend with them, there's plenty of reason to be worried about it. I certainly am.
I'm worried about studies showing that the more time children spend with TV and video games the less well they do in school and the more calories they consume. And the studies showing that the bells and whistles of electronic books actually detract from reading comprehension. And those demonstrating that time with screens changes the very structure of our brains. I'm worried that the skills we gain won't make up for our losses. I'm worried that screen-based reading, with omnipresent hyperlinks, interferes with comprehension and memory, and that heavy Internet use appears to encourage distractedness and discourage deep thinking, empathy, and emotion.
I'm especially worried about the addictive qualities of electronic media. The more time children spend with television before the age of 3, the more time they spend when they're older, and the harder time they have turning it off. I'm worried that fast-paced video games trigger dopamine squirts in our brains—kind of like cocaine. A few years ago, one survey of 8- to 18-year-olds found that almost one-quarter said that they "felt addicted" to video games.
And here's what worries me most: We're turning to the companies that profit from these technologies to help parents manage their kids' relationship with screens. While it's great that the Federal Communications Commission is launching a campaign to promote digital literacy, the fact that companies like Best Buy and Microsoft are funding it make it unlikely that weaning kids from their products will be a priority.
There's no question that technology is here to stay. Kids born today will experience wondrous technologies most of us can't even imagine. But the skills they will always need to thrive—deep thinking, the ability to differentiate fact from hype, creativity, self-regulation, empathy, and self-reflection—aren't learned in front of screens. They are learned through face-to-face communication, hands-on exploration of the world, opportunities for thoughtful reflection, and dreams.