Screens and children were in the news this week. On Wednesday, the World Health Organization announced new guidelines for family screen time, advising that children under one have no screen time, and children between 2 and 4 years old have no more than an hour per day. And to help parents out, on Tuesday Sesame Street tackled the subject with a PSA called “Device Free Dinner,” which features a tech-addicted Cookie Monster who now sadly wants phone even more than delicious cookie.
Yes, it’s great there’s more awareness about the dangers of screens and children. We now know screen use is bad for children’s mental health and connected to attention problems, social interaction difficulties, and even higher risk of suicide. But some children are more at risk than others. This is the real digital divide, but it’s being largely ignored by policy makers and educators. And it could have disastrous long-term consequences and even end up fueling inequality.
The term digital divide dates back to the ’90s and referred to unequal access to the Internet. That’s still how it’s spoken of by the FCC, whose chairman, Ajit Pai, says his top priority is “closing the digital divide and bringing the benefits of the Internet age to all Americans.” But while that divide has largely closed, a new one has opened, with studies showing that teens in lower-income families spend nearly three more hours a day on screens than their higher-income peers. Meanwhile, among those who are the most hyper-vigilant about screen time for their children are parents in Silicon Valley, some of whom are even making their nannies sign no-phone contracts.
The consequences aren’t limited to serious physical and mental health problems. We know that excessive screen time also diminishes our focus, our creativity, our decision-making skills, and our empathy levels. These are all essential job skills — and life skills — and they’re going to become even more valuable in the 21st century.
The real digital divide is about access to our most essential human qualities, not to the screens that we know diminish them. But we can’t close this divide until we recognize it. Now that we know the dangers of screen time, let’s protect all children from them, just as we would from any other threat to public health.
Originally posted in Thrive Global by Arianna Huffington in her weekly thoughts newsletter.