The Digital Divide Effect on Children Cannot be Muted

Digital Divide & Children

Imagine the following situation: You are in a coffee shop and see a woman who is at her computer for a Zoom meeting, struggling to hear her colleagues because her 4 year old son is squirming in her lap, putting his hand in front of her monitor seemingly vying for his mother’s unbroken attention. You hear her eventually give up at trying to quiet him down as she says something along the lines of “Sorry, the school was closed again today and this little one is full of energy, I will go on mute and listen the rest of the meeting so me and this little guy aren’t too distracting.” 

This hypothetical moment might seem relatively mundane, but I can’t help to think of all the parents and children today who experience this likely interaction as strikingly poignant. The mother who lives next door may need to be working from the coffee shop because she does not have another place to work with an internet connection and since her child’s school is once again closed, that meant they needed to cozy up in the corner of a coffee shop together for the day. The reality of parents needing to navigate work and home life simultaneously because their kids have nowhere to learn for the day is one that is all too familiar for many families in this country since the start of the pandemic. When school and work both must function online, kids’ learning is often the thing that gets sidelined so that parents can continue to provide for their families. But that’s the caveat, isn’t it? Children’s development cannot simply be put on mute.  

I recently wrote an article about the digital divide by examining the broad strokes of the issue and attempting to identify a few solutions. However, this issue is multifaceted and there is a necessity I believe to examine which populations are the most vulnerable to the ramifications of a lack of a stable internet connection. I believe that students, especially those in low-income districts of the United States, face an unprecedented burden when it comes to this lack of broadband resources. In terms of studying this phenomenon there is a lack of adequate studies that control for variables such as lack of a stable broadband connection. In the world of today, underserved populations are at risk to face the consequence of their struggles being undocumented as many of the studies and data census’s of today rely on email, telephones or other technology to get data. 

Recently there was a study conducted by Vikki Katz who is an associate professor at Rutgers University in Brunswick, New Jersey that attempted to highlight this problem by bringing greater visibility concerning the effect that little to no broadband access has on children and their families. Their findings carry some positive news, that since 2015 the number of students in the area with broadband connectivity is up to 82 percent. However, staying connected is the larger issue.  

Many times, lower income families have to go without broadband for a while to pay other bills or the broadband connection they are able to afford has constant interruptions. Katz and her team noted that “among the 82 percent of families who report having broadband internet service, more than half (55 percent) said their internet service had been too slow in the past 12 months, and almost one-fifth (18 percent) reported interruptions in their internet service at least once in the past year due to unpaid bills.” These findings point to another issue than just whether one’s family has access to broadband, as it is clear from this study that not all access to broadband is created equal. There are many factors to take into consideration but one factor that is often overlooked are the kinds of plans lower income families can afford greatly reduces their chances to thrive in school and work. Katz and her colleagues observed that roughly 11 percent of families have something that is called “Mobile-Only” Internet access. “Mobile-only access is a form of under-connectedness in its own right, given how challenging it is to do complex tasks like a homework assignment on a smartphone, as compared to doing so on a computer,” says Katz.

One of the important conclusions the study was able to draw was that, like the researchers expected, the quality of internet access had a direct effect on students finishing their schoolwork and keeping up in the curriculum in general. “Among parents with mobile-only or dial-up internet, half (52 percent) said their lack of internet access prevented their children from participating or completing their schoolwork at some point over the past year…” This inability to keep up in school has been especially prevalent during the pandemic as many public spaces with a Wi-Fi connection that families had once relied on to complete schoolwork were not available to access.

The study also pointed to another expected but unfortunate fact, that the actual number of families (especially lower income) who do not have adequate broadband access is much greater than was previously theorized. Researchers pointed to the statistic that more families are connected to broadband than ever can be misleading. Even though the study tells us more than 80 percent of families have access to broadband…the quality of their internet plan is poor and the amount of devices families have access to is limited. According to the study, the actual ability for parents and their kids to keep up with the technological demands of school has not changed in a meaningful way. 

In order to ensure that more children are successful and that their education is not put on hold because of lack of broadband resources coupled by the complexities of the pandemic, it is essential that more needs to be done to get a quality broadband connection to students in some way. Katz and her team indicated a solution to these problems, “The challenge for policymakers, educators, and internet service providers is to reach these young people with affordable, long-term options for broadband connectivity and devices as soon as possible.” There are government programs such as the Emergency Broadband Benefit program, which the researchers explain is an expansion of the E Rate program which is designed to allow schools, libraries and other learning facilities with funding and discounts towards their internet connection. However, these bills often take a long time to take effect and there is a lot the private sector can do.

Companies and nonprofit groups who are already leading the charge could partner to help create centers for students to go to be sure they have a constant quality broadband connection. Investing in communities whose school districts are known to be underperforming because of unequal access to technology should be highly prioritized. This study is one of the first to control for variables that get in the way of knowing the exact number of families who are affected by lack of quality broadband because the researchers used other means besides internet connection to collect their data. In order to really understand the magnitude of children and their families without access to quality broadband services more studies of this nature should be carried out lest we risk putting a whole generation of children on mute.

By Zev Kamrat, Customer Experience Manager for Signalmash

Originally on Medium: https://medium.com/@zevjordan/d6ae0c1d029 

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