Many of the emergency responses to closing the digital divide amid the COVID-19 crisis have been tied to schools. For example, policymakers have coordinated with schools to disperse hot spots and devices to school-age children. While these actions are important, especially as distance learning becomes even more of a norm, our long-term approach to closing the digital divide should target children at even younger ages. Indeed, we should be addressing the digital divide at birth by providing new families with a prepaid mobile hot spot.
Governments have recognized that income inequality has an unfortunate impact from the moment a child enters the world. The provision of a hot spot can feed two birds with one scone by simultaneously addressing the differences in care afforded to different mothers as well as the differences in access to the internet. Communities of color and those experiencing financial insecurity tend to have lower rates of broadband access. For example, in San Francisco, 100% of residents with more than $200,000 in income use the internet at home, while that rate is just 71% for those with less than $25,000. Similarly, 96% of white San Franciscans use the internet at home, compared to just 81% of the Black population in the city.
What’s a hot spot got to do with raising a baby? In our increasingly virtual world, access to high-speed internet is as much a matter of health as it is of economic empowerment, especially for new parents. Most moms don’t receive the postnatal care they need to get off to their best start with a new child, but access to the internet and a government-supported jump-start can help them.
The first 12 weeks after birth — commonly referred to as the fourth trimester — are essential to the physical and mental health of moms and babies alike. For example, 1 in 7 moms requires assistance with postpartum depression. Left untreated, this depression can have long-term negative effects on a young family’s well-being, such as increased substance abuse and higher rates of suicide in mothers. Despite these troubling outcomes, there is a woeful lack of discussion and study regarding the fourth trimester.
Our newfound appreciation for telemedicine and telehealth, accelerated by COVID-19, can correct this inadequate approach to the first weeks of a child’s life so long as families have adequate internet connection. With high-speed internet, parents can obtain high-quality and reasonably priced check-ins with health care professionals and mental health providers. As an added benefit, these televisits come without the costs typically associated with in-person visits such as gas, child care for other kids and time away from work.
Ensuring that every parent can connect virtually with their doctors and psychiatrists can right the wrongs caused by the digital divide and income inequality. Case in point: women of color and low-income mothers are far more likely to suffer from postpartum depression, but they are less likely to receive care. Providing a hot spot to every new parent won’t immediately close our society’s digital gulfs, but doing so will nevertheless mark baby steps in closing the digital divide.
Organizations focused on digital inclusion commonly refer to the digital divide as a three-legged stool: access to the internet, digital literacy and devices such as laptops. The latter is a particularly important and costly leg of the stool — parents who solely rely on their phones to access the internet may have a harder time providing for their little ones. “Mobile-only” parents are less likely to apply for jobs and more likely to miss out on receiving social support services to which they are entitled. Hopefully future newborn kits will include the devices, such as laptops, required to close other aspects of the digital divide.
Thankfully, a newborn kit equipped with a prepaid hot spot can still shore up two of the stool’s legs: internet access and digital literacy. Handing out hot spots can reduce disparate levels of digital literacy by giving parents more experience using technology to access critical services to raise their child. Helping all families develop these digital skills will generate decades of positive externalities, such as improving children’s self-esteem, increasing their academic potential and, later, their professional prospects.
This work cannot wait for when a baby becomes a child or even a toddler. It’s too late to start talking about the difference in internet access and digital literacy when kids start formal education. Every day in which a young child lacks the legs of the digital stool is a day they are less able to explore their interests, encounter new information and more rapidly develop digital skills.
Finally, a mobile hot spot in the hands of every mother can aid the government in creating a new market for tech to dive into: new apps, games, training and other innovations that can help parents of all backgrounds ease into parenthood in the healthiest way possible. It’s basic economics: New demand requires new supply. This is especially true when it comes to infrastructure — there’s a long track record of the government laying foundational pieces of infrastructure (such as the national highway system) that then spur economic development and societal flourishing.
Hot spots are a lot smaller and less costly than a highway, so it’s about time we make the connectivity it provides a part of every childhood. Whether it’s a boy or it’s a girl, every parent should also be welcoming a new source of internet connectivity into their world.
Kevin Frazier is a student at UC Berkeley School of Law and the founder of No One Left Offline.