Digital Inequality

Research Summary

Tens of millions of children growing up in the U.S. are in low-income and minority families. They are more likely to experience digital inequality — too little access to the internet and devices that connect to it. This inequality can worsen existing socioeconomic disparities. While children should be protected from too much screen time, we argue that it is also necessary to consider how unequal technology access can limit low-income children’s access to a range of social opportunities. This paper highlights research that is needed on how digital inequality may affect the way children develop over time, and concludes with guidelines to help clinicians support digital connectivity and more equitable social opportunity for the increasingly diverse population of children in the US.


If immigrant and minority children have internet access on smartphones, isn’t that good enough?

No. Although internet access through a smartphone is better than having no out-of-school connectivity, there are many instances (e.g., writing an essay or creating a spreadsheet) where young people need the computing power of a desktop or laptop computer to succeed in school. Our research also shows that children who have mobile-only internet access go online less frequently and for a narrower range of learning activities than children who have access through a computer.

Do one-to-one laptop or tablet initiatives address these issues of digital inequity?

Not totally. These initiatives are generally designed for classroom use. Even if students are permitted to take those devices home, children cannot use them to their full potential unless they have reliable, high quality broadband at home.

Why is equitable access to technology a developmental concern for children?

As educational innovation becomes synonymous with technological innovation, enabling all children to have consistent, high-quality connectivity and opportunities to develop digital skills is crucial to ensuring equitable access to social opportunities, both now and in the future. Furthermore, as more resources and services migrate online, parents’ connectivity is becoming increasingly important to ensuring that they can access the economic and occupational opportunities that increase family stability for lower-income children.

Key Takeaways

  • Overexposure to media and technology is a concern for children’s development, but so is unequal access to technology and the social opportunities that are made available by connecting to them. Lower-income children in the U.S.— who are disproportionately children of color and/or children of immigrants — are most affected by digital inequality.
  • Providing lower-income immigrant and minority children with access to technology increases their self-efficacy in mathematics and science by enhancing learning through active engagement, participation in groups, frequent interaction and feedback, and real-world connections.
  • Consistent Internet connectivity outside of school supports children’s learning and development by maintaining the out-of-school access to teachers and peers that is critical to subject mastery and school success. Consistent connectivity also provides opportunities for interest-driven learning — the learning activities that foster joy, motivation, and self-confidence.

Guidelines for Parents

  • Child’s learning ecosystem: School and teachers are important components of children’s learning ecosystems, but so are their families. Our own research shows that parents and children support each other in learning about technology, and in using technology as a tool to learn (Rideout & Katz, 2016). Siblings are also important learning partners, though they are often overlooked. We find that these relationships are even more intense amongst families with the lowest household incomes, those in which parents have less than a high school diploma, and those in which parents are not English proficient (Katz, Moran, & Gonzalez, 2017). These findings speak to the importance of family members in children’s technology experiences—they also reveal how important it is for families to have high-quality, trusted people and organizations in the community that can support their digital skills development and access to consistent, quality internet connectivity and devices in good working condition (Katz, Moran, & Ognyanova, 2017). Family members and community resources are crucial to children’s learning ecosystems, so digital equity initiatives that only focus on youth as end users cannot be sufficient for closing the “digital divide.”
  • Children as creators: According to Dale’s Cone of Learning (1969) people retain 10% of what they read, 20% of what they hear, and 30% of what they see. Additionally, people retain 50% of what they see and hear, 70% of what they say, and 90% of what they say and do. Media can be used to facilitate and support learning by supporting knowledge construction, acting as a vehicle for the exploration and access to information, supporting contextual and real-life learning situations, acting as a medium for collaboration and dialogue, and providing a mechanism to reflect on and represent their knowledge (Roschelle, et. al., 2000). Because media helps to create cognitive and affective environments that describes and portray people, places, and things that influence how and what young people learn, youth should be more involved in using media to determine what they hear, see, and experience in their everyday lives.
  • Diversity in media: One-third of African American youth report that they often encounter online content that is disrespectful to African Americans, and one-quarter often encounter disrespectful online content about women (Rideout et. al, 2016). This frequent exposure to negative content, along with stereotypical and imbalanced representations, may lead to lower self-esteem for minority youth (Martins and Harrison, 2012). Children need to see different types of people, characteristics, physical attributes, a variety of family structure, lifestyles, and power/working relationships. Children need to hear a variety of sounds, voices, and music. Parents should not only be concerned about diversity (or lack thereof) is heard, seen, and done in one particular media product, but also, across a collection of media products; that is, not in one book, but throughout a library of books, when 85% of children’s books (Horning, 2016) feature main characters who are white. Diversity in content and creation yields more authentic products, which is a welcome change to media consumers. According to the Hollywood Diversity Report (Hunt, 2016), television shows and movies with diverse casts typically have better ratings and perform better at the box office.


Katz, V.S., Gonzalez, C., & Clark, K. (2017). Digital Inequality and Developmental Trajectories of Low-income, Immigrant, and Minority ChildrenPediatrics, 140(140S2). doi:10.1542/peds.2016-1758R

  1. Clark, K. (2016). Technology tools for family engagement: The role of diversity. In C. Donohue (Ed.), Family Engagement in the Digital Age: Early Childhood Educators as Media Mentors. New York, NY: Routledge Publishing.
  2. Horning, K. (2016). Publishing statistics on children’s books about people of color and first/native nations and by people of color and first/native nations authors and illustrators. Cooperative Children’s Book Center, University of Wisconsin-Madison, WI.
  3. Hunt, D., Ramon, A., and Tran, M. (2016). 2016 Hollywood Diversity Report: Business as usual. Ralph J. Bunche Center for African American Studies at University of California – Los Angeles (UCLA).
  4. Katz, V.S., Moran, M., & Gonzalez, C. (2017). Connecting with technology in lower-income U.S. families. New Media & Society. Advance online publication. DOI: 10.1177/1461444817726319
  5. Katz, V.S., Moran, M., & Ognyanova, K. (2017). Contextualizing connectivity: How internet connection type and parental factors influence technology use among lower-income children. Information, Communication & Society. Advance online publication. DOI: 10.1080/1369118X.2017.1379551
  6. Low, J. and Ehrlich, H. (2015). Where is the diversity in publishing? The 2015 Diversity Baseline Survey results. Lee & Low Books.
  7. Martins, N. and Harrison, K. (2012). Racial and gender differences in the relationship between children’s television use and self-esteem: A longitudinal panel study. Communication Research, 2011; 39 (3).
  8. Rideout, V.J., & Katz, V.S. (2016). Opportunity for all? Technology and learning in lower-income families. New York: Joan Ganz Cooney Center at Sesame Workshop. Available at
  9. Rideout, V., Scott, K., & Clark, K. (2016). The digital lives of African American tweens, teens, and parents: Innovating and learning with technology.

The analysis, conclusions, and recommendations contained in each paper are solely a product of the individual workgroup and are not the policy or opinions of, nor do they represent an endorsement by, Children and Screens: Institute of Digital Media and Child Development.

Additional Information