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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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Should We Be Concerned About an "App Gap"?

Audrey Watters

Education technology journalist

Last week, the American Academy of Pediatrics restated its long-standing recommendations that parents limits the access to television of children under age two. But it's fairly clear that few people are actually heeding the advice. According to a recent study by Common Sense Media, children of all ages are spending more and more time in front of screens of all sorts -- not just television screens, but computer screens, iPads, smart-phones, gaming consoles and the like.

Concern about children's access to and consumption of media -- even media that's labelled "educational" -- is nothing new. But there is a new warning flag in this latest report: a so-called "app gap."

An "app gap," Common Sense Media argues, is developing between children of high-income and low-income families, the latter having limited access to mobile devices and the applications on them. Some statistics from the report:

  • One in 10 lower-income children (that is, children from families earning less than $30,000) has a video iPod or similar device in the home, according to Common Sense Media, compared to one in 3 of upper-income children (those from families earning more than $75,000). Two percent of low- income children have an iPad or tablet in the home, versus 17 percent of higher income children.
  • 38 percent of lower-income parents say they don't know what an app is, compared to just 3 percent of higher income parents. Fourteen percent of lower-income parents have downloaded apps for their children to use, compared to 47 percent of higher income parents.

No surprise, the difference in access to devices and to the apps on them leads to different usage figures: 55 percent of children from higher-income families have used a cell phone, iPod, iPad or similar device to play games, watch videos or use apps, whereas just 22 percent of children from low-income families have done so.

But while the "app gap" might have a nice, rhyming ring to it, is this really a new phenomenon? How is this different from the digital divide? Are children without apps missing important educational opportunities? How is that different from children without access, more generally, to computers or to the Internet? What happens if we reframe discussions of the digital divide to focus on an "app gap"? Does this presume that access to software on an iPad or iPhone is superior to access on a PC?

According to the survey data, about 72 percent of children 8 and under do have computer access at home in this country, but there are disparities, again, based on income. About 48 percent of low- income families have a computer at home compared with 91 percent of higher-income families. The survey didn't specify whether or not these computers also had Internet access, another crucial piece of the puzzle when it comes to providing children with equitable and affordable digital education opportunities.

So should we be concerned about an "app gap"? Or does doing so just deflect from other inequalities?

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