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Big Tech vs. Our Kids

Naomi Schaefer Riley

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When it comes to kids and screen time, the tide seems to finally be turning. What was a few short years ago a distinctly minority viewpoint – that time on phones, tablets, laptops, and video game consoles is bad for children and should be severely restricted – is now gaining ground. Many middle- and upper-class Americans, especially those who have been the creators and purveyors of this technology, now believe, with a reasonable amount of evidence to support them, that screens are a detriment to children’s social skills, ability to concentrate in school, physical health, and emotional well-being.

A 2018 Pew survey found that “two-thirds of parents say they are concerned about their teen spending too much time in front of screens, and 57 percent report setting screen time restrictions for their teen in one way or another.” And kids are worried as well. A different Pew survey reports that 54 percent of teens say they spend too much time on their cell phone, and 41 percent say they spend too much time on social media. They are even conscious enough of the problem that many have tried to cut back. More than half said they have tried to reduce their cell phone use, time on social media, and hours spent playing video games.

But this message about screens has not gotten very far among disadvantaged families. Indeed, many seem to have fallen victim to the unfettered market forces of Big Tech – intent on persuading them that technology is actually good for kids and its use at young ages is necessary for success. Thanks to arrangements between large school districts and Silicon Valley, poorer children are being plied with screens in every classroom as technology companies mine data from their computer use and habituate them to the use of more screens.

Poor and minority kids are spending more time on screens than their peers. According to a 2017 survey by Common Sense Media, children from lower-income families spend an average of three and a half hours each day on screen media. That is 40 percent longer than middle-income children and almost double the screen time spent by affluent children. The survey also found that the more education parents have, the less time their kids spend on screen. And the racial divide is clear too. Black kids spend an average of 2 hours and 51 minutes per day on screens compared to 2 hours 36 minutes for Hispanic kids and 2 hours 11 minutes for white kids. To put that in perspective, over the course of a year, black kids will spend an extra 243 hours a year on screens compared to their white peers. That’s about two weeks of time they are awake.

What is happening here? For one thing, disadvantaged parents are still getting the message that access to technology is the key to their children’s success. They hear it from politicians and policymakers who are pushing for more library hotspot programs and more wifi access. Perhaps more importantly, they are hearing it from schools where administrators and teachers are bragging about one-to-one iPad programs and asking students to do more and more of their work online both in the classroom and at home.

In underperforming schools with crumbling buildings and overcrowded classrooms, it is easy to see why parents would be excited about new technology coming in. According to a survey from the Joan Ganz Cooney Center, an independent research lab (and part of the Sesame Workshop) 80 percent of low income parents think using technology in the classroom improves education quality” and 91 percent of those parents think that their kids spend either the right amount of time or not enough time on technology in the classroom.

According to a report from the Education Technology Industry Network, the educational technology market totaled $8.38 billion in the 2012–13 academic year. That number is up from $7.9 billion the year before and 11.7 percent from 2009.

According to EdSurge, these companies raised $1.36 billion in 2014, up from $1.2 billion in 2013. For the elementary and secondary school market alone, investment grew 32 percent in 2014 to $642 million. For decades, the companies trying to get into classrooms were textbook publishers. Parents, teachers, and school boards were involved in bitter battles over the content of the textbooks as well as the costs. But technology seems to have slipped into the classroom without much discussion at all.

In 2013, the Los Angeles Unified Public School District began handing out iPads as part of a $1.3 billion digital learning program. By 2015, it had become clear that the program had failed, and the FBI started investigating the preferential treatment that both Apple and Pearson (a curriculum company) received from district administrators in the process. Michael Horn, executive director of the education program at the Christensen Institute, told Wired magazine that the Los Angeles fiasco is a case of a school district getting caught up in the educational technology frenzy. “A lot of schools get into trouble when the conversation starts with the vendor,” Horn says. In other words, what schools know is that they want to buy something. But they are not clear on what they want the technology to do for their kids.

It is only recently that parents have begun to understand the deal that their schools and their district representatives have struck with education technology companies, often without enough evidence to make these purchases worthwhile. Tony Wan, the managing editor of EdSurge, told The Atlantic that in the past, schools initiated a lengthy “request for proposal” process and looked at products from a variety of different companies – a process that could take as long as two years, which is “a lifetime for most startups.” Now, schools are allowing companies to come into classrooms to demonstrate their products right away. Which means schools can show parents the cutting-edge stuff they’re doing with students and parents can walk away thinking that their kid is getting a better education.

In its 2017 series Education Disrupted, the New York Times highlighted the cozy relationship between technology companies and public school district. Take Baltimore, for instance. In 2014, the Baltimore County School District “committed more than $200 million for HP laptops, and it is spending millions of dollars on math, science and language software. Its vendors visit classrooms. Some schoolchildren have been featured in tech-company promotional videos.” Meanwhile, according to the Times, “Silicon Valley has embraced the school district right back. HP has promoted the district as a model to follow in places as diverse as New York City and Rwanda. Daly Computers, which supplied the HP laptops, donated $30,000 this year to the district’s education foundation. Baltimore County schools’ top officials have traveled widely to industry-funded education events, with travel sometimes paid for by industry-sponsored groups.”

As much as this kind of deal smacks of cronyism, it is all the more upsetting because of the message that all this technology in the classroom is sending to parents. They believe it is going to change their kids’ academic outcomes, but as Larry Cuban, a Stanford University education professor who has been studying the impact of technology in the classroom for more than three decades, told me in an interview, “I can say pretty categorically that there is no evidence that the use of devices and software will improve academic achievement of students.” Maine has had a one-to-one iPad program for more than a dozen years and student achievement has not improved one iota.

More educated parents have started to organize and ask questions about why districts are employing these devices. But disadvantaged parents often assume that if teachers and administrators like it, it will be helpful, and certainly that more time on screens (even for non-educational purposes) can’t be particularly harmful. But by keeping less advantaged parents in the dark about the ways in which technology can be a distraction from and detriment to learning, our policymakers and school leaders are only widening our achievement gaps. When it comes to technology, the haves are the have-nots.

teenage girl sitting on a sofa staring at her open laptop
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Naomi Schaefer Riley is a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute focusing on issues regarding child welfare as well as a senior fellow at the Independent Women’s Forum. She also writes about parenting, higher education, religion, philanthropy and culture.

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