Whether or not parents can see the potential learning value of media exposure, and what is called the digital divide are the main barriers to children’s media use, apart from television which is universal.

Technology puts a lot of pressure on today’s families. It is costly to be connected, to have mobile phones, cable access and the latest iPod. The digital divide is exacerbating inequalities in access to good schooling and other children’s services. Many parents are pulled in two ways by the new technology — they fear its negative impacts: passivity, physical inactivity, pornography and cyber-bullying. But they sense that without adequate exposure and skill acquisition their children will be disadvantaged.

This is the modern version of educational inequality, which has always reflected both parental income and their perceptions of the value of education. The most recent OECD comparisons suggest that the education divide is reopening, with 7.2% of children having fewer than 11 books in the home, 12% of children living in households where income is less than half the national median, and psychological problems rising. Income influences what products families can buy, including access to cable TV and the internet.

In the United States Montgomery notes:

The growing importance of the internet has created a new disparity across class lines in children’s access to skills, social networks and intellectual resources. While children with high household incomes enjoy speedy, pervasive access to technology at home and at school (either private or affluent public school districts), others struggle to compete for intermittent access to slow machines that are outdated and erratic … Those young children without access to the internet … are considered to be seriously disadvantaged, cut off from opportunities, unskilled for future work, and disconnected from peers.

There are no Australian studies that break down children’s media usage by race or ethnicity, but LSAC data on four-year-olds suggests that parental education levels, family income and other factors such as working hours, father absence and number of siblings do have an impact on their viewing patterns and developmental outcomes. As Professor Alan Hayes puts it, “While social class differences are not evident in early infancy, by six or seven years of age, developmental outcomes are clearly differentiated by parents’ social position”.

With the global financial crisis impacting on Australia, that income gap may well become wider and public institutions such as children’s and family support services, child care centres and pre-schools, local libraries and schools will have to become key providers of access to computers, specialist games, and media literacy programs.

Australia is a rapid adopter of any new technology, but there remains a significant digital divide which the government is currently trying to address. The number of dwellings with access to the internet increased from 35% in 2001 to 63% by the 2006 Census.

Nationally, access varies from 66% of households in the major cities to 42% in very remote areas (with just 28% of these remote households on Broadband). The ACT is highest (75%), with South Australia, Tasmania and the Northern Territory lowest (between 28-32%). As well, the top quintile of household incomes has 77% with access compared with only 34% for the lowest quintile household group. Those with post-graduate education are 83% more likely to have access to the internet than those with no post-school qualifications. The unmarried, low-skilled, indigenous and unemployed also have lower access.

An Australian study by the Smith Family found a new digital divide between those who are part of ‘the new participatory creative culture’ and those who are not. That is, inequality is not just reflected in relative access to and possession of media forms but a lack of skills and opportunities for using technology for social inclusion.

If the new interactive, creative technologies do actually encourage a new world of democratic citizenship participation (UNESCO), there can be no doubt that children who lack both the opportunities and skills to make their own informed media-related decisions, or to interact with their peers and express their ideas via the new technology, will lack the cultural competencies and social skills that will be necessary in this newly-emergent digital world.

Children whose parents do not have a computer, or cable TV or a DVD player, or cannot afford monthly internet service bills will be at a serious disadvantage and they need public access to and training in the use of such technologies. Gender plays its traditional role as well, with girls in school often marginalized in computer use, boys averaging a higher daily use and thereby gaining higher computer skills.

Peter Fray

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