How Much Does The App Gap Matter?

Foster Kamer points out an interesting statistic reported in the New York Times that half of families with incomes over $75,000 have used internet-capable mobile devices to download applications for their children, while just one of 8 families with incomes under $30,000 have. There’s always a tendency to assume when one set of people has or can afford something and other people can’t that the thing is important, and particularly so if it’s something that’s billed as good for childhood development. And I get that impulse — nobody wants their children to be deprived, whether of educational advantages or of pleasure.

But I think it’s pretty early to worry that an app gap is going to cause lasting educational deficiencies for poorer children. The American Academy of Pediatrics is clear about the lack of benefits of screen time for children under 2. And there doesn’t seem to be particularly definitive evidence that apps give children who use them an advantage in literacy or other kinds of learning. According to a white paper from the Arizona State University College of Teacher Education and Leadership:

It is difficult to gauge what is actually happening, because the little that is known about the effects of digital media on emergent literacy skills development comes from educational television and computer studies, as well as from a few studies of other media and surveys…Digital media may be transforming the language and cultural practices that enable the development of emergent literacy skills. A new generation of young children is experiencing a new kind of interconnectedness in the language they see, hear, and use.

It may be that the optimism of folks like GeekDad or app evangelists may be justified. But until it’s proved to be so, it’s probably not worth a panic. That doesn’t mean that it’s worth doing nothing, either — it would, of course, be too bad if it turns out apps are a critical development tool and a lot of kids had been missing out. But I wonder if the best way to go about it is for developers to think beyond the Apple App store. You’re not going to get everyone to come to Apple, nor should you. If we’re worried about a digital gap, we should meet people where they’re at. And more parents should probably be getting the Academy of Pediatrics warnings through their doctors. That only 14 percent of them are getting that information from their doctors may actually be a more worrying suggestion that medicine isn’t adapting to the digital age as well as we might wish.