The Ultimate Digital Divide is Age, Not Income

The headline of a recent New York Times article reads, “Digital Divide is a Matter of Income.”

I disagree. The article says that 57% of poor households use the Internet. That’s low, but I’m sure the percentage of preschoolers who use the Internet is wayyy lower. Sure, even infants can bang on a mouse, but kids who can’t read can’t use the vast majority of the Internet that requires reading for navigation.

It’s not a big deal if young kids can’t perform online tasks like read news articles or buy products. They weren’t able to do this decades ago, either, before the Internet. The problem is that the Internet has become the primary means of social interaction for many adults. A report from the Pew Research Center confirms that use of social networking sites like Facebook does significantly diminish face-to-face interactions with neighbors and others.

Think about this. When social interactions between their parents and others are in the physical world, children always participate at some level, even if they don’t understand everything that’s going on. Newborns who don’t understand any words perceive emotions in voice inflections and facial expressions. Infants understand a few words. Toddlers can understand a lot, often more than parents realize, as they begin to participate in adult conversations.

On the other hand, social interactions online shut out pre-literate children. They can’t read the words on the screen, and they perceive no voice inflections or facial expressions.

In other words, to the extent that their parents are making their social interactions online rather than in person, young children are getting shut out. They don’t hear as many social conversations, and they don’t have as many opportunities to participate in conversations.

This is true regardless of whether parents interact online in front of their kids or not. That’s because parents who socialize a lot online feel less of a need to plan in-person social engagements, or even to put themselves into situations like evening neighborhood walks in which they might serendipitously run into familiar people and strike up conversations.

Instead, if they’re not typing away on Facebook in front of their kids, they’re more likely to be watching TV or driving their kids somewhere in a car.

That Pew Report I mentioned earlier finds no problem with the dramatic rise of social networking sites because the social needs of adults who use these sites frequently are being met. The implication is that those of us who desire face-to-face neighbor interactions are just being nostalgic or old-fashioned.

This is a dangerous anti-child point of view. Parents who socialize online expose their children to a much less stimulating social world than those who don’t. Kids learn fewer social skills, and learn less in other ways because social expression is a key to all learning.

Besides, socializing is fun and is emotionally fulfilling. Parents’ social isolation in the physical world has a magnified effect on young kids because, unlike their parents, young kids have no opportunity for online social interaction.

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