It’s an idea that won’t go away: Wealthy parents don’t want their children exposed to technology in school.
“The digital gap between rich and poor kids is not what we expected,” the New York Times proclaimed last October. “The rich are banning screens from class altogether.”
Such sweeping assertions are supported by neither available evidence nor what’s happening in some of America’s wealthiest school districts.
Instead, the “new digital divide” is complicated and difficult to pin down, Education Week found when reviewing research, talking to experts, and interviewing parents and school officials in affluent communities like Beverly Hills, Calif., and Greenwich, Conn.
It’s true, for example, that teens and tweens from higher-income families spend less time consuming media each day than their less-affluent peers, per surveys by the nonprofit group Common Sense Media. And students in wealthier public schools generally report using digital devices in the classroom less often than their peers in poorer schools.
But wealthier children are far more likely to have their own laptops, smartphones, and tablets, Common Sense has found. And wealthier parents are far less likely than their lower-income counterparts to be worried about their kids sexting, being cyberbullied, being exposed to pornography and violence, and spending too much time online.
Furthermore, such trends appear to hold true even in Silicon Valley, where rich parents were less likely than their lower-income counterparts to strongly believe that children should not be exposed to technology at a young age.
And while some tech executives certainly do choose to send their children to screen-free private Waldorf schools, parents like Joaquin Lippincott are perfectly pleased sending their kids to a public school district that touts its delivery of “state-of-the-art, cutting-edge technology resources, along with the knowledge and skills to use these tools in a meaningful way.”
“We have so many gizmos and gadgets in the house that my kids are going to be exposed to technology no matter what,” said Lippincott, a software-company CEO who has two children in the Beverly Hills school district. “The most important thing I’ve seen from our school district is they are thinking about it intentionally, not ignoring it or trying to move backwards.”
Lisa Guernsey has been studying the ways parents use technology with their kids since before the iPhone came along.
“Across income levels, there’s always been a concern that technology is changing the way we’re parenting,” said Guernsey, the director of the Learning Technologies Project at New America, a Washington think tank.
Of course, for some parents, such concern does translate into banning smartphones until their children turn 14, or prohibiting their kids from using iPads. When those parents are Bill Gates and Steve Jobs, people snap to attention.
But empirical evidence and experts broadly suggest that higher-income parents actually grant their children more access to technology, then use their resources and advantages to try to steer their kids toward healthy, productive uses of those tools.
Consider, for example, 2015 and 2016 reports from Common Sense Media that explored media use by tweens (8-12 years old) and teens (13-18 years old).
• Among families with incomes of $100,000 or more per year, the group found, 62 percent of teens had their own laptops, and 78 percent had their own smartphones. Among teens whose families made less than $35,000 per year, 25 percent had their own laptop, and 51 percent had their own smartphone.
• On any given day, 94 percent of both high- and low-income tweens used screen media. On average, though, lower-income tweens spent nearly two hours more per day on those screens than their wealthier peers, a disparity driven almost entirely by additional time spent watching TV and listening to music.
• Higher-income teens were most likely to say their parents talked to them about when they can use media, what types of media they can use, and how to stay safe online. But those same teens were also least likely to say their parents know a lot about what they do online, what games they play, and what apps they use. In other words, said Jenny Radesky, an assistant pediatrics professor at the University of Michigan, it’s complicated.
Parents of all income levels seem to share similarly positive attitudes about technology’s potential value for their children. And lower-income parents actually appear to be more concerned than their wealthier counterparts about tech’s potential downsides.
The difference may be the extent to which parents from different tax brackets feel able to help their kids pursue the good while avoiding the bad.
Rich, highly educated parents are “constantly curating their children’s experiences” and “have a sense of agency that they can set the limits they want and find positive, more creative uses of media with their kids,” Radesky said. “Lower-income parents have a lot of other stresses on their plate.”
Tech in Schools
Disparities in how schools use technology are similarly nuanced.
Among the nation’s private schools, there does not appear to be any across-the-board trend of “schools fully eschewing technology,” said Myra McGovern, a spokeswoman for the National Association of Independent Schools.
In the Bay Area, meanwhile, the Early Learning Center at the Silicon Valley Community Foundation found that educators serving higher-income families were more likely to believe that children shouldn’t be introduced to tech at an early age.
Few places in America are as affluent as Beverly Hills, Calif. And parents there are “incredible partners” in pushing for more and better use of classroom technology, said Bernadette Lucas, the director of technology for the community’s 3,900-student school district.
“They want to make sure their children are prepared to function in a national and global context,” Lucas said.
In recent years, that has shown up in widespread support for two bond measures, both of which included money for digital devices for all Beverly Hills students. The district’s technology plan calls for widespread access to digital content, liberal use of adaptive software, and a kindergarten-to-high school STEM pathway.
Parents certainly have questions, Lucas said, about everything from screen time to data privacy. But that’s similar to what she saw in her previous position, as the director of instructional technology in the nearby Los Angeles school district.
What is different is Beverly Hills parents’ sophistication in pushing for their children’s interests. That’s why the district has focused on involving families, through school-based technology committees and regular conversations about the reasons and goals behind using digital tools in the classroom.
It’s made a big difference for parents like Kimberly Combs, who recently returned to her native Beverly Hills in large measure so her two children could attend the local public schools.
She’s very much against “technology as a babysitter,” Combs said. But she’s very much for making sure her kids get the deepest, most enriching experiences possible.
“Beverly Hills isn’t a brand that likes to be behind the times,” she said. “When we chose to come back here, I felt very comfortable that my children would have access to the appropriate tools.”
And in the K-12 sector at large, federal surveys consistently indicated that students in wealthier public schools use digital devices less frequently than students in poorer public schools, for everything from reading projects to math enrichment, according to an Education Week Research Center analysis of student and teacher surveys conducted by the National Center for Education Statistics.
Few people are better positioned to offer insights on those differences than Bernadette Lucas, the director of technology for the Beverly Hills school district, who previously served in a similar capacity in the Los Angeles school district and is currently finishing a dissertation on the topic.
What’s quite typical in affluent public schools, it seems, is the type of approach taken by the Greenwich, Conn. schools, a district serving one of the several dozen communities in the U.S. where the typical home is worth more than $2 million.
Six years ago, Greenwich schools started a 1-to-1 computing effort, distributing iPads and Chromebooks to roughly 9,000 students and staff members. Officials purchased Schoology, a popular digital learning-management system, and became a “Google district,” adopting the tech giant’s web-based productivity applications. Greenwich has also embraced personalized learning, using adaptive software programs that adjust to each student’s skill level as part of its academic-intervention process.
Now, said Chief Academic Officer Irene Parisi, if you walk into a Greenwich elementary school, students might still be finding something to read in classroom book bins and conducting hands-on science experiments—or they might be using an app to self-publish their own e-books, or using Google Forms to collect and analyze data on weather patterns.
Far from forgoing technology, she said, her district has embraced it—strategically, she hopes, with one eye on keeping up with the future, and another on potential pitfalls.
“We’ve already grown a lot,” Parisi said. “And we’ve asked parents to reinvent themselves and go on this journey with us.”
A version of this article appeared in the February 13, 2019 edition of Education Week as Debunking the Myth of Rich Parents, Tech