Are Class Differences in Parenting Creating a New Digital Divide?


Screenshot/ Computers for Youth.

9.17.12 | In 2012, the digital divide is complicated.

What does it mean that 65 percent of Americans have broadband access at home, or that 83 percent of Americans own a cellphone?

Do numbers like these mean we can all sleep well at night, secure in the knowledge that new technologies mean more equal opportunities for all? Or could the rise of digital technology actually exacerbate the problems of income and opportunity inequalities? And while we’re at it, do those numbers about broadband and mobile phone penetration even say what we think they say?

Let’s start with the numbers. First of all, 65 percent is hardly universal; it drops to 40 percent in households with incomes under $20,000. Only half of all Hispanic households have broadband, and in African-American households, the number is only 41 percent, according to the FCC.

The mobile phone statistics – from the Pew Internet and American Life Project – aren’t quite what they seem, either. It doesn’t differentiate between a mobile phone and a smartphone, which is where so many of the exciting digital learning opportunities exist.

According to industry analyst Tomi Ahonen, the penetration rate per capita for smartphones in the United States is only 35 percent. (The United States is tied for 16th place internationally with Greece, Ireland and Portugal; Singapore wins with a 90 percent penetration per capita rate.)

Lynn Schofield Clark, an associate professor at the University of Denver and author of the forthcoming book “The Parent App: Understanding Parents in a Digital Age,” has been studying technology use among high school students in urban Denver. She said these surveys are often misleading because the upper-middle-class kid who has a laptop, iPad and smartphone, and the lower-income kid who gets 45 minutes of free time on a computer at school will both answer “yes” to the question, Do you have access to the Internet?”

Similarly, she said, phones are often shared in immigrant families, so a “yes” to the question of,  “Do you have a mobile phone?” may not actually mean what it seems to mean.

One of the things I find most frustrating is the assumption that technology will radically override inequality and structural problems of everyday life.

– danah boyd, Microsoft Research

But issues of the digital divide circa 2012 go much deeper than just penetration rates.

“One of the things I find most frustrating is the assumption that technology will radically override inequality and structural problems of everyday life,” danah boyd, a senior researcher at Microsoft Research, said. “Everything I’ve ever seen suggests that the new tools of technology when left alone and not properly contextualized reinforce and magnify existing inequalities.”

In other words, even if every kid in the world had a computer and a smartphone, not every kid in the world would come away with the same skill sets and modes of thinking. Researchers are beginning to realize that what you do with technology is more important than just having access to it. And that, obviously, is a much harder problem to solve.

Annette Lareau, a professor of sociology at the University of Pennsylvania, is the author of the landmark book “Unequal Childhoods: Class, Race and Family Life.” In her book, Lareau did not look specifically at computer use, but the frame she created in understanding different parenting styles among different socio-economic groups is useful—particularly for dissecting what happens after access. 

“All parents want their kids to be healthy and happy,” Lareau said, “but they have different cultural logics.”

Lareau calls the middle-class parenting style “concerted cultivation,” and the lower-income style “the accomplishment of natural growth.”

“Middle class parents see their kids as a project,” she said. “They are constantly and relentlessly developing their kids’ talents and skills. They put them in organized activities, spend time reasoning with them, answer questions with questions and will intervene with institutions if they don’t think their kids are being treated fairly.”

In poorer families, on the other hand, “resources go into feeding and clothing the kids,” Lareau said. “Low-income parents see adulthood as a time of trouble, so they try to protect their kids from what lies ahead. The kids play, watch TV, hang out with cousins; they relax. Even if there are organized activities, parents’ focus will be on keeping them safe. For middle-class kids, there’s a lot more emphasis on individual development. ”

With all the emphasis on informal learning in the digital media and learning community, it’s also worth noting that Lareau found that lower-income families depended far more than middle-class families on schools to educate their kids. Lareau said there was a “summer gap,” wherein middle-class kids’ learning outpaced their lower-income counterparts. 

Through her research in Denver, Schofield Clark is looking specifically at computer use among kids of varying economic status. “There is a clear distinction between upper class families and less advantaged families in how they think about technology and how they incorporate it into their lives,” she said.

Translating Lareau’s “concerted cultivation” into the digital arena, Schofield Clark talks about an “ethic of expressive empowerment” among parents higher up the socio-economic ladder. “Upper-middle-class parents value their kids using technology to express themselves,” she said.

For lower-income families, Schofield Clark refers to an “ethic of respected connectedness,” adding, “There’s a huge emphasis on respecting authority and using technology to connect to each other.”

Among the immigrant families she’s been studying, Schofield Clark sees young people using technology to connect with family members and to keep their families informed about news happening in their countries of origin.

“What’s happening with the disadvantaged families is a reinforcement of learning within their primary communities as they exist today,” Schofield Clark said.

Kids from higher-income families, on the other hand, are constantly expanding out into new networks, which means new opportunities for learning and exposure to new ideas. 


Screenshot/ Computers for Youth.

Ten years ago, Bill Tally, a senior research scientist in the Learning and Teaching Division of the Education Development Center, was doing his dissertation on “what happens after access.” Ten years ago is another universe when it comes to digital technology, but his study of computer use in families in the South Bronx and a middle-class suburb in New Jersey runs parallel with Schofield Clark’s findings and the overall frame established by Annette Lareau.

The very first thing Tally noticed were the differences between the socio-economic groups in “technological capital.” Tally was studying families who were using computers donated by a non-profit organization called Computers for Youth. When a computer broke in lower-income families, the kids of the family would have to call the organization for help. Sometimes resentment over feeling they’d been given second-rate goods kept the families from seeking repairs at all, and the computers would simply fall out of use.

In the New Jersey suburbs, kids could turn to their parents, a sibling, an uncle or a neighbor to fix the computer. Sometimes their parents took the machine into work for repairs.

“How many degrees of separation from a geek are you,” Tally said. “That was how I came to think of it.”

In low-income families, “the media habits in the household were most laissez-faire,” Tally said. Kids used the computers to play games, IM (this was 2002, after all), and browse pop culture sites. They also used the computers to do homework, but this generally meant typing on the machine as if it were a word processor. In immigrant families, said Tally, computers were often placed in the living room and used communally, and kids did things like make fliers for church events.

“In the middle-income community, there was a much bigger range of use,” Tally said. “The kids were engaging in expressive uses of technology. If they took piano or guitar lessons, they were downloading music writing software and recording songs. They made fancy Power Point presentations, and they used “The Sims” not just to create characters but to write stories about their characters and share them.”

Tally echoed Lareau’s observation about middle-class parenting styles. “There’s a powerful parental envelope over what goes on with media in middle-class households,” he said. “They tried to shape their kids interactions by talking to them about it. It’s the same idea as co-watching TV with your kids, but playing out with newer technology.”

In the article “Who’s Responsible for the Digital Divide?” Dmitry Epstein, Erik Nisbet and Tarleton Gillespie say there are two ways public discussion about the digital divide get framed—one frame is about access; the other is about skills. When it’s the former, people tend to blame the government and look to the government to solve the problem. When it’s the latter, the popular thought says the problem and solution lies with people themselves.

“When it’s seen to be a problem of skills, it’s like, ‘That’s your own problem.’ It’s considered an individual issue,” danah boyd said. “But no, that’s the classic American myth that everyone should be able to pick themselves up by their bootstraps and move on. But that’s not right. These are structural inequalities we’re talking about.”

And structural inequalities are hard to solve, no matter how fast your internet connection is.

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