The Digital Learning Divide: A consumer revolution of technology for children

It all started early in October.  The daily mail bundle in our mailbox increased; not with bills, letters, or canvasing from local politicians but with holiday circulars. There were the glossy circulars with ‘shop early and often coupons’ and the less flashy circulars from the big box stores.  No matter the quality or number of coupons, they all had one thing in common: multiple pages of electronic devices geared at different young child and teens. Why buy Tickle Me Elmo when you can have a tablet?  Or a TV console geared specifically to your own age group?

Child playing with a mobile device. As a parent of an elementary school-aged child, and an educator and scholar whose research focuses on emerging adults’ use of technology to communicate, I am savvy and knowledgeable about digital learning; however, I still wasn’t prepared for the amount of targeted marketing to children of all ages from the electronics retail industry. This onslaught of marketing came at the same time that my husband and I were considering purchasing a tablet for our soon to be 8-year old.

She is an avid reader and has demonstrated her ability to use my tablet responsibly while using educational apps, making videos, reading magazines, and watching doll videos. The combination of her responsibility level and desire to read, coupled with her consistency in asking to use the tablet and listening when asked to put it away, made me feel that she was ready for her own tablet. I began to ask her questions about reading on a tablet and while she would love to, she insisted that she would use a combination of eReader functions and paperback books because she didn’t think some illustrations would be the same on a tablet.

While continuing on our journey to research the most appropriate tablet for her age group, the fliers continued to flood my inbox and my mailbox.    Then the Black Friday circulars arrived with tablet after tablet and sale after sale.  Does she need a tablet with retina display? One that can stream on the television?

My own interest and research on the topic of children’s technology use, the research my husband and I conducted on tablets, and a bit of common sense merged in mid-November.  Children of all ages have unlimited learning opportunities at their fingertips through the use of mobile technologies, including tablets.  They also have unlimited opportunities to become plugged into non-educational apps, games, and media.  This isn’t necessarily bad, but must be monitored and used in moderation. Recent studies (Dahlstrom & Bichsel, 2014; Buban, 2013) found that emerging adults (18-29 years of age) use mobile devices, are comfortable with technology, but need guidance in using technology. Another finding is that emerging adults understand the need to be able to communicate sans technology (Buban, 2013).  As children age towards adulthood and often times go to college, they still require guidance with the use of technology.

As parents and educators of children in the 21stcentury, we have a responsibility to provide children guidance in using technology and in fostering responsible technology-use.  We can do this by spending time with our children to find appropriate apps, to learn with them on their tablets, monitor their use on devices, and continue to go to libraries and bookstores for some of their reading choices. By doing so, we are providing children with access and use of technology but also fostering good habits surrounding technology-use and encouraging communication and the use of a variety of learning tools.

After months of deliberating and research, we will purchase a tablet this season.  It won’t be the kid-centric tablet of the month with kid-friendly apps and shatterproof protection.  It will be the table she can grow with and continue to learn how to responsibly access, handle, and utilize the resources available to her with a swipe of a finger.


Jill Buban, Assistant Provost for Research and Innovation, holds a Ph.D. in Educational Studies, M.S. in Curriculum and Instruction and a B.A. in History. Buban has focused extensively on online teaching during her time as Dean of the School of Education and the Academic Program Manager for the Teaching & Learning and Online Teaching concentrations of Post’s Master of Education program. 

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