How Disparities in Wealth Affect Gen Z's Experiences With Technology

Even when students have access to the same sets of technologies, those in more affluent schools are typically far better supported in using them in ways that promote their critical thinking and creativity.
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A few years ago, I helped organize a convening of researchers, practitioners, and industry leaders whose work focuses on young people and technology. The purpose of the gathering was to take stock of existing research on today's digital-age youth and set an agenda for future research. Although many of the attendees were considered experts in matters relating to youth and technology, we recognized that the real experts are youth themselves. We therefore kicked off the event by inviting eight high school students from Seattle-area schools to participate on a youth panel.

As it turned out, our strongest community partnerships came from two schools that were about as far apart in income levels as one could get. Half of the students attended an elite private school located in an affluent suburb north of Seattle. They were primarily white and lived in upper-middle-class families and neighborhoods. The other half attended a public high school located in a low-income neighborhood in south Seattle. These students were immigrants from Africa and Southeast Asia, and all of them lived in low-income families.

In many ways, the two groups were quite similar: They were all avid users of social media, particularly Instagram and Snapchat, and peers were the focus of their networked lives. Their digital devices gave them a sense of connection to their friends; one after the other said they would feel "lonely" and "bored" if their devices were taken away from them. The ability to connect through technology had an added sense of importance for the low-income students. One girl explained that her parents work late, so she is usually the only one in the house for several hours after school. "Without technology," she said, "I'd feel alone a lot of the time."

Anxiety was another feeling that both groups of students shared. In many ways, their devices—particularly their phones—represent a lifeline to their friends. Without these devices, they feared missing out on important conversations and events. Adding to their anxiety was the pressure they faced to follow the many unwritten rules of social media etiquette (strategic posting, tagging, and liking on Instagram, for instance) and the drama that can ensue when someone flouts these rules.

The similarities between the high- and low-income students, though, ended at the doorsteps of their respective schools. Income has an enormous impact on young people's educational experiences with technology, just as it does on other aspects of school life: teacher quality, class size, curriculum offerings, and so on. Even when students have access to the same set of technologies, those in more affluent schools are typically far better supported in using them in ways that promote their critical thinking and creativity. Researchers have shown, for instance, that, in affluent schools, classroom wikis were more likely to be created, used for longer periods, and provide more opportunities for student involvement. Such disparities extend beyond the walls of the classroom; for example, higher-income students are more likely to register for and complete MOOCs than lower-income students.

The students on our youth panel expressed these differences in stark terms. One girl listed the several devices that her private school issues to each student, complaining about how heavy they made her backpack. The next student to speak was a boy attending public school, who reflected that he wished his school would give students laptops that they could take home, because he does not own or have access to one of his own. Beyond differences in access, the students' comments underscored the considerable differences in the support and mentoring that high- and low-income youth receive around technology use.

It was uncomfortable but important for us to hear these two accounts of technology's role in young people's lives (and I'm mindful that they are just two of many). These youth remind us that important differences exist within as well as across generations. They remind us that there are as many ways to use today's technologies as there are young people using them.

Instead of talking about generations, then, let's talk about individuals. Let's get specific, in our parenting, teaching, research, and policymaking. What is this particular young person's age, gender, race, ethnicity, and income level? What are their experiences with peer group norms, family rules and rituals, after-school programs, and tech-related school policies? Parents, teachers, researchers, and policymakers will be much better equipped to understand and support the young people in their lives with such person-specific questions.

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Understanding Gen Z, a collaboration between Pacific Standard and Stanford's Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences, investigates the historical context and social science research that helps explain the next generation. Join our newsletter to see new stories, and let us know your thoughts on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram

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