Smartphones: Closing or Widening the Racial Achievement Gap?

As a child and adolescent psychologist, I have worked with many capable white children whose academic achievement plummeted because their overuse of video games and TV distracted them from a focus on schoolwork. However, I see a disproportionate number of bright African-American and Latino kids with similar problems. Children of color spend more time watching TV and playing video games than white children. This factor has been cited as one reason white children academically outperform children of color, as both TV and video gaming displace reading and time spent on homework.

Now, a recent Pew Research Center report's findings suggest that racial achievement disparities are being exacerbated by extremely high rates of smartphone use by African-American and Hispanic teens. The report shows that 85% of African-American teens have access to a smartphone compared with 71% of white and Hispanic teens. High levels of smartphone access, especially among African-American youth, are driving extraordinary rates of online use: 34% of African-American and 32% of Hispanic teens are online "almost constantly," while 19% of white teens report using the Internet this often.

If teens used their online time productively, such use might foster their academic success. However, parents I work with tell me that teens primarily use their phones to game, social network, and text at the expense of homework and school grades. Scientific studies confirm parents' reports. Research shows that the top online activities for kids 12-17 are playing games followed by using social networks. And much like TV and gaming, the more time kids spend social networking the less well they do academically.

What else do kids use their smartphones for? Look over their shoulder, and you will often find them watching TV, a lot of TV. A Kaiser Family Foundation report says: "The transformation of the cell phone into a media content delivery platform... [has] facilitated an explosion in [recreationally-based] media consumption among American youth." Specifically, the Foundation says that kids' growing access to mobile devices is leading to dramatic increases in good ol' TV watching. The bottom line: While smartphones may have tremendous computing power, kids use them primarily for entertainment, often at the expense of their schoolwork.

How to Reduce the Achievement Gap and Promote Teens' Academic Success

What is leading to high smartphone use among kids of color? The Pew study found that tech-use differences between races are reversed when considering teens' access to a laptop or desktop computer: 91% of white teens own a desktop or laptop compared with 82% of Hispanic and 79% of African-American teens. Such differences are partially explained by income, as families of color, who are more likely to have limited resources, may forgo the purchase of desktops/laptops in favor of smartphones, which are relatively less expensive.

Another factor propelling high smartphone and online use by kids of color is the lack of opportunities these kids have to participate in positive real-world activities. Parents from less-advantaged families often tell me that their neighborhoods are too dangerous to let kids outside so they feel that time on the phone is a better choice. Kids of color also often don't have access to the same real-world learning and extracurricular opportunities as white children. For these reasons, it's vital that we offer quality real-world learning and enrichment opportunities to all kids to reduce the time kids spend playing on their phones.

Smartphone overuse by African-American and Latino teens also can be reduced by pushing back against the poisonous digital native-digital immigrant myth. This widely-accepted notion maintains that kids know more about how they should use technology than their parents, and it's a dangerous myth that has contributed to many parents providing their kids few, if any, tech rules.

At face value, the native-immigrant belief seems to hold water, as teens can flip through a phone with an ease that awes their parents. However, parents--by virtue of their more developed brains and greater life experiences--are better able to understand something far more important: how the use, or more frequently the overuse, of entertainment technologies can affect academic achievement and life success. Sadly, the native-immigrant myth is especially harmful to families of color. That's because they tend to have less access than white families to guidance from college counselors and high-performing schools that help parents understand kids are better served by focusing on schoolwork rather than playing with devices.

What type of parenting is likely to raise successful kids in this digital age? Look no further than the parenting provided by leading tech execs, including Steve Jobs and Bill Gates. As described in The New York Times' article, "Steve Jobs Was a Low-Tech Parent," screen and phone limits commonly used by tech leaders include:

  • no gadget use on weekdays and limits from 30 minutes to two hours on weekends for phones and tablets
  • computers only being used for homework on school nights
  • and no screens in the bedroom

Schools also have an important role to play and should promote their students' learning success by limiting smartphone use at school. Recently, researchers from the London School of Economics and Political Science published their study which found that a ban on smartphones at school improved kids' test scores, especially those of lower-achieving students.

Finally, because parents are better able to oversee teens' use of computers than smartphones, efforts should be made to provide all children, once they reach middle school or high school, with access to a laptop or desktop computer in lieu of a smartphone. Resources should be made available to disadvantaged families to purchase these computers.