A New Kind of Digital Divide: How Technology Affects Adolescents

By Jocelyn Contreras

Several media sources have depicted the digital realm in a negative light: selfies run the world, Millennials are lost to the internet, and adults fear that children will forsake the offline world for the digital world.

While the fear-induced perception of a generation lost to technology has stirred the public, the chances of mobile devices affecting mental health are extremely slim. The idea that technology is responsible for the divide between younger and older people  is inaccurate. What is not promoted are the real effects that technology can have.

Professor Candice Odgers specializes in developmental and quantitative psychology, social inequalities, child health, new technologies and adolescent development in the department of psychology and social behavior at UCI. Last year, after Odgers wrote an article about the positive effects of phone usage, an angry father who read the article called her to complain about her findings. He was concerned about his adolescent overusing  their phone.

Odgers had to approach their reaction with a more balanced perspective. In 2015, Professor Odgers offered an alternate study representative of adolescents across North Carolina. The study focused on early adolescence, a period when mobile phone usage increases concurrently with symptoms of mental health problems.

“In the first study, it involved kids who had already experienced mental health symptoms: got into trouble at school, teacher evaluations, were expelled, or parents reported they were experiencing problems,” said Professor Odgers.

The study was a representative snapshot of North Carolina which can be regarded as representative of United States adolescents. Via phone and face-to-face interviews along with home visits, Professor Odgers discovered that adolescents from different socioeconomic backgrounds have different experiences online.

“Historically, there has been a divide where the more affluent kids are more advantaged and have more access. But what we’ve seen over time is that divide shrinking, and there are equal rates of access to the internet.”

Professor Odgers’ study has shown a new kind of divide emerging from the different experiences produced through different types of internet use. In the North Carolina survey, the data showed that adolescents from lower-income households spent more time on passive media use that may not yield the same benefits as media use by adolescents from higher-income households who use the internet to do research or read news.

In addition to the different types of usage, the family structure within the adolescent’s life contributes to the digital experience. In higher-income households, parents tend to monitor what their children are doing online while lower-income households don’t always.  Without parental supervision, there are dangers and risks involved with children surfing the web and the way their time is spent online. Parental supervision is important in supporting a child’s navigation of the online world.

Kids from lower income households spend their time in physically distinct schools and neighborhoods from those of higher income neighborhoods, but their experience with the digital world can be similar.

As if the navigation and supervision of a child’s digital footprint isn’t already difficult enough for parents, the evolution of Artificial Intelligence leaves parents baffled.  Such advances in technology prompt the emergence of a new kind of digital divide with inequalities similar to the offline world.

Usage of internet-based applications can potentially create privacy and security risks. The Cambridge Analytica data scandal in which  identifiable information of 87 million Facebook users was mishandled can demonstrate the consequences.

“A lot of what you see in the online world, the online world sees you,” said Professor Odgers.

Professor Odgers says that mobile devices are mirrors. They are not the cause of mental health problems but are a reflection of the person who owns the device. They may help parents recognize some change in their child’s behavior or problems that otherwise would have gone unnoticed. This is does not mean  spying on adolescents’ phones, but it is the key to starting a conversation.

“There is a lot of information kids are disclosing online, lots of things that they are seeing that spark and start a conversation if parents are tuned in. The key to success is about strong communication and support.”

Universities can use this information to create a positive online community. UCI can use new technologies to individualize mental healthcare for students the same way they individualize learning.

“How could we use online tools to tailor and make your university experience positive and supportive?” asked Odgers.

Odgers believes that jumping to conclusions with insufficient evidence has consequences. One of those consequences, said Odgers, “is not understanding the real causes of mental illness and not developing effective solutions.”