Some years ago, I read an account of a study (can’t find it now*) of poor, minority teens who spent a lot of time playing electronic games. Many pundits opined that, in an electronic age, such teens could thereby narrow the gap between themselves and their better educated middle class peers.

But the researchers had discovered a hitch: Playing electronic games did not translate into knowledge of the inner workings of computers, let alone generate well-paying careers in computer engineering.

True, the teens who went into computer engineering played the games. But those games were not a cause of their future success, only an expected corollary. The poor, minority teens filled up empty hours while learning nothing beyond consumer gaming. They had no idea how computers worked. No one showed them.

Predictably, we learn from a 2013 Pew study that

In overall internet use, youth ages 12-17 who are living in lower-income and lower-education households are still somewhat less likely to use the internet in any capacity — mobile or wired. However, those who fall into lower socioeconomic groups are just as likely and in some cases more likely than those living in higher income and more highly educated households to use their cell phone as a primary point of access.

In short, “those who fall into lower socioeconomic groups” are being trained as consumers, not producers. They are not writing code on a laptop, they are tweeting, texting, and sexting, ignorant of the algorithms underlying the systems, and perhaps eventually working low-paid jobs to buy the gadgets.

This problem partly accounts for the impatience some of us display with claims that kids will be harmed if their online access is supervised.

For example, we hear from a 2012 Pew study much top flight punditry on how, thanks to new media, the human brain is evolving, or “rewired,”“hyperconnected,” and “wired to adapt,” for “evolutionary advantage,” as a “new page is being turned in human history”, leading to “a change in values as well.”

Irrespective of whether there is any inherent value in such claims, they ignore the key difference between the person who gets paid to produce the software and the person who pays to consume it.

So important is this difference that the Silicon Valley elite strictly limit their children’s time with the devices they themselves pioneer.

Tin Tan Wee, an internet expert based at the National University of Singapore, realistically admits,

So during the next 20 to 30 years, a digital divide will grow in educational systems and in outcomes in which the individuals, systems, etc., which can adapt will progress far more rapidly than those who cannot—and they will be the majority and will do badly and suffer. We are already seeing this manifested in the economic scene, where the rich get richer and the poor poorer.”

It’s unsettling that so many pundits seem oblivious to this divide. From a 2010 New York Times article we learn how new media affect teens:

“Their brains are rewarded not for staying on task but for jumping to the next thing,” said Michael Rich, an associate professor at Harvard Medical School and executive director of the Center on Media and Child Health in Boston.

Wait a minute. Who is raising children who can’t concentrate? Surely no one writes software without staying on task. Any creative act requires deep thought and intense concentration. No wonder Taiwan, a world education performance leader, has taken legislative steps to supervise access, to protect its children’s ability to be on the right side of the divide.

*Note: Several expert respondents to this Pew survey raised similar issues.

For a promising future in the new Internet-based economy, a lot depends on whether the teen inclines somewhere more toward this end of the spectrum:

than this end:

Next: The deep class and gender divide in Silicon Valley itself

Denyse O’Leary is a Canadian journalist, author, and blogger.

Denyse O’Leary is an author, journalist, and blogger who has mainly written popular science and social science. Fellow Canadian Marshall McLuhan’s description of electronic media as a global village...