University of Missouri research: pandemic underscores digital divide for Black families

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ST. LOUIS- A new study, led by the University of Missouri indicates that Black families have not only been disproportionately impacted by the physical toll of COVID-19, but that the move to online schooling has further laid out the struggles African-American families have had when it comes to access to technology and WiFi.

“What we found was parents and caregivers often felt disempowered in the rapidly changing environment, as they did not necessarily feel equipped with the tools or technological savviness to effectively engage in their children’s education the way they felt they needed to,” said Adaobi Anakwe, an MU post-doctoral fellow and the study’s lead author in a news release. “Schools were sending students home with devices for online learning without first ensuring families had reliable, consistent internet access to utilize those devices, and this was a big contributor to parental stress and burnout.”

Based on the interviews, parents felt they were placed in a survival mood in which they had to either “sink or swim” with regards to understanding their own limitations with technology and the needs of their children to effectively support them. Prior to the pandemic, parents were tasked with reducing screen time for their kids and involving them in more physical activity [46]. In a pandemic world, however, parents were not only tasked with “reversing” that messaging but also becoming more involved with technology themselves and for their kids. Findings from our study showed that not only do African American families lack access to technology, but they also grapple with how to keep their children engaged without seemingly providing inconsistent messaging on use of technology. On the other hand, parents also had to bear the additional burden of sharing “limited” technology resources. Nevertheless, parents had to navigate their moral and ethical beliefs and the situational conundrum with minimal support, which can increase anxieties due to feelings of powerlessness, lack of control and disempowerment with navigating this “new” tech world safely.

Sink or Swim: Virtual Life Challenges among African American Families during COVID-19 Lockdown. Published April 2021

The study, which involved thirteen families in the rural midwest, was published in April by the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health.

“Reduced access to these resources can have irreversible long-term consequences for academic, social, and health outcomes. These families need tailored supports to ensure that both their need for and concerns about technology use are addressed, especially as learning through online means gradually becomes the norm,” the study concluded. “Digital technology needs to become part of the school education system so that technology use and achievement standards among African Americans are elevated.”

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