Before We Begin: Rethinking What We Know About Kids and Tech

As educational institutions move toward ensuring inclusion and equity for students in populations that have been historically underserved, it behooves us to step back and consider what we currently know about technology use and access among youth in general. We need a clear view of the technology landscape in which our students learn, but attaining that clarity requires examining the basic elements of how children use and access technology, and our own long-held assumptions.

So, before we begin initiatives to lower barriers and deploy technology effectively, we need to look carefully at what we know (or think we know) about kids and technology. Specifically, we need to consider how children engage with technology, understand that teens in poverty and underserved groups experience technology differently, and reconsider our own beliefs about the impact of technology.

Consider how Kids use Technology

Access to learning technology seems to be the most frequently mentioned element in think pieces by education experts and education reporters, such as Valerie Strauss at The Washington Post. Strauss explains: “Learning-related technology outside the school should be a civil right, alongside food, shelter and education itself that is available everywhere and always to everyone as a universal entitlement” (Strauss, 2020).

Further, as we move forward as a digital society, the digital divide no longer separates those who have access to technology from those who do not have access. Instead, the divide occurs in how people access technology. A Pew Research study found that over 90% of American teens have access to a laptop or smartphone irrespective of their parents economic status or education level (Anderson, 2018). However, the same Pew Research poll found that youth from low income families accessed Facebook at twice the rate of their wealthy peers, but use Snapchat and other apps significantly less (2018). While 93% of teens living in poverty have access to a smartphone, only 75% have access to a computer (there is no data on how many have access to tools running current operating systems, or high speed internet access to use these tools) (Anderson, 2018).

Before we can effectively deploy technology in a way that empowers youth in traditionally underserved communities and lowers barriers, it is useful to consider the ways in which students currently interact with technology, and work to gain independence and agency through the use of technology. Doing so helps us ensure that the policies and tools we put in place are more effective. Unfortunately, there is a dearth of data on how students use and adapt technology in ways that allow them to gain ownership over their experiences, so we are left with anecdotes.

Anecdotally, whenever students open their chrome books each year, their first steps are often to change the wallpaper, their user icon, and find ways to dig into the allowed websites to find games and activities that interest them. This self expression, is an essential part of learning, according to Will Richardson at Educational Leadership, who states “creative freedom, or “agency,” is a key aspect of almost every deep learning experience that we have in life” (2019). This desire to have agency over their experience is reflected in ways in which teens and tweens use non-academic technology.

For example, the young entrepreneurs spotlighted in an Input magazine feature turned their Instagram into thrift stores (Sato, 2020). According to the article, teen sellers on Instagram often began their efforts at resale sites like Poshmark, but moved to Instagram, where they adapted the non-sales tools to meet their needs “though apps intended for e-commerce have more of the right features, Instagram sellers have figured out how to use, say, Story highlights as an FAQ page.” (Sato, 2020).

Understand that Tech Tools are Different for Students in Poverty

Reaching students during the remote crisis learning necessitated by the COVID-19 pandemic has meant expanding past traditional educational technology systems, such as email, learning management systems, and academic games. Educators have stretched into traditionally less academic technology tools, such as video conferencing, social media, blogging, and text messaging. As a result, it is helpful to examine the ways in which students use technology in other media than school.

A Pew Research Center Survey from before the pandemic examined how teens use mobile technology, and found that almost all teens use their cellphones to pass time (91% said “often” or “sometimes”) and to  connect with others (84% often or sometimes,” or learn (83% often or sometimes) (Jiang, 2018). This indicates that cellphones were poised to be efficient learning tools even before the world’s schools moved online.

However, some of the technology educators adapted for instruction online has limited function in the mobile version or has functionality that is more difficult to access. For example, the Zoom website indicated that the tool has nearly identical functions on phones as on the desktop, but in practice accessing those functions is significantly different and can be more difficult on the phone (zoom, 2020). For example, Bustle explains that you can only see 4 people at a time in gallery view on the phone, screen share is an option but pausing it is not, and you cannot access virtual backgrounds (which is particularly tough on students who live in poverty and do not wish to share their homes with their peers) (Wylde, 2020). These limitations may seem minimal for adults using zoom for meetings, but for young people learning, the differences can be significant.

View Common Wisdom on the effects of Technology Skeptically

There remains a widespread belief that technology use is harmful for the mental health of children and adolescents. However, some more recent studies are finding that the impact is relatively insignificant. When one such study examined datasets and eliminated variables in observations that gave small effects and outsized influence, they discovered that this negative impact is minimal and “too small to warrant policy change” (Orden, 2019).

Christopher Furguson explains the widespread nature of the belief in the overall negative impact of technology on children’s mental health, by turning his eye to those who conduct studies and report on them. In an interview in Psychology Today, he explains the view that technology is uniformly negative for youth is both a product of adult views and the populations of youth using it:

 “As we get older, we become more and more suspicious of new technology. . . a lot of people are already primed to want to believe negative things about [social media. . . [but] is it that kids use screens and then have more mental health problems—or is it that kids who have more mental health problems tend to use more screens?” (Frye, 2019).

If Furgusun’s assertion is true, children with mental health problems using technology as part of their informal coping tools would fall under the umbrella of children adapting technology to their own purposes. From the perspective of youth, social media technology specifically is beneficial. When Pew research polled teens on the impact of social media technology on their lives, fewer than 25% said that the influence was mostly negative (Anderson, 2018).


Getting a clear view of the current situation regarding students and technology, the technology tools themselves, and the areas in which we lack data to have a deeper understanding can form the starting point for educators when creating systems in which all students experience learning through effective technology tools.

Anderson, M., Jiang, J. Teens, social media & technology 2018. Pew Research Center.

Frye, D. (2019, Feb 22). Is tech really hurting teens? Psychology Today.

Orben, A., Przybylski, A.K. The association between adolescent well-being and digital technology use. Nature Human Behavior 3, 173–182 (2019). Retrieved October 18, 2020 from: 

Richardson, W. (2019, February). Sparking student agency with technology. Educational Leadership, 76 (5). 12-18. Retrieved from

Sato, M. (2020, February 12). Teens are hacking Instagram into a modern-day eBay. Input.

Schaeffer, K. (2019, August 23). Most U.S. teens who use cellphones do it to pass time, connect with others, learn new things. Pew Research Center: Fact Tank 

 *Strauss, V. (2020, August 6). The education technology students will need — and won’t — after coronavirus. The Washington Post.

Wylde, K. (2020, April 1) 7 Differences between zoom on your phone vs. laptop. Bustle.

Zoom Help Center. Desktop client, mobile app, and web client comparison. Zoom. Retrieved October 24, 2020 from

*Thank you to Joey Freeman for the suggestion to consider this article.

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