Nothing is more mysterious in politics than why some issues capture the imagination of idealistic people like college students -- sweatshops in Latin America, for example -- and some don't, like the enormous gap in computer use and Net access between poor and rich kids.
It's tough to imagine a more urgent moral issue than the fate of children without access to computers or the Net, since their educational, economic, cultural and social lives will be directly affected. Wealthier kids have access to research, free music, challenging games, educational and social opportunities online and the better jobs of the new economy. Poorer kids may be slinging burgers.
But the issue just doesn't seem to catch fire, either on college campuses, in the political community, among the sometimes narcisstic communities of tech workers, or among the intensely policitized communities and corners of cyberspace, where individual civil liberties are a raging concern but the technological fugures of other people often aren't. That's an ugly shame.
This week, a report by the David and Lucile Packard foundation issued this week but not yet online, revealed that computers are being used more than ever by kids who have them. An amazing seventy per cent of American households with children ages 2 to 17 have Net access, says the report, up from only 15 percent five years ago. About 20 percent of kids age 8 to 16 have computers in their bedrooms and ll per cess access the Net there.
It also revealed children's access to computers and the Net varies wildly with family income. A little more than 22 per cent of children in families with annual incomes of less than $20,000 had access to a home computer, compared with 91 percent of those in families with incomes of more than $75,000. Even in those cases where they do have a computer, found the study, kids in lower-income families use it less, in part because their families are less likely to have an ISP. And they almost never have access to broadband, beyond limited time on school and library computers.
This isn't a small disparity. Access to computing -- to RPG and other forms of gaming, search engines, IM, file-sharing systems -- shapes creativity, vocabuliary, political awareness, culture and common language, not to mention economic opportunity.
According to a story by Tamar Lewin in the New York Times this week, almost every school in the nation is now wired, but there are enormous differences in how indvidual schools use computers. The Packard Foundation report, which includes studies by a number of other experts, found that schools serving poorer kids are more likely to emphasize word processing and other simple tasks while those serving more affluent students taught computing as a means of promoting cognitive skills, problem-solving and gathering information on specialized fields of study.
The report also found that computers are turning out to be especially effective in dealing with some learning disabilities, a valuable treatment that poorer kids are also deprived of.
The report had some other interesting findings, some surprising, some not:
- For young boys, games are the dominant form of computer use. And there is little evidence that moderate game playing affect's kids social relationships or friendships.
- There are concerns among educators and psychologists about the 7 to 9 percent of American children who play computer games for more than 30 hours a week.
- Teenagers use IM, e-mail and chat rooms as a primary means of staying in touch with friends.
- Children ages 2 to 5 averaged 27 minutes a day at the computer. Children 6 to 11 spend 49 minutes a day. Kids 12 to 17 averaged 63 minutes a day.
Among the recommendations the study's authors make is this: "Efforts to ensure equal access to computer-related learning opportunities at school must move beyond a concern with the number of computers in different schools toward an emphasis on how well those computers are being used to help children develop intellectual competencies and technical skills," said the Packard Foundation study.
That means equal access issues involve more than software and hardware. It involves getting kids to the next level, using computing and the Net to develop story-telling, creativity, IQ, research and communicative skills, something that's only happening, the report says, in more affluent schools.
And there's no reason to expect this disparity to narrow. Computer companies have shown little intererest in getting equipment into the hands of poorer kids and families, even though it wouldn't be enormously expensive (an AT&T study a couple of years estimated it would cost between $3 and $5 billion) and would yield enormous economic benefits down the road.
The Clinton administration talked about equal access, but never fought for funding for it. Congressional Republicans showed little interest in the issue. Bush says he wants education to be a major priority in his administration, but his proposals, which were outlined this week, focus on literacy testing and accountability -- they don't even mention technology or computing. Few people in the new or old administration -- or anywhere else, for that matter -- seems to get that the most powerful moral issue affecting many kids and the Net isn't that they are online too much, but that so many aren't online at all, or find their Net and Web lives bounded by disparities in family income.