Author Spotlight

An Appeal to Librarians: Provide Leadership on Kids’ Tech

In her keynote address at the American Library Association (ALA) Annual Conference in June, Microsoft’s Danah Boyd advocated for open access to information, a positive message that is consistent with longstanding librarian values. However, Boyd is best known as an observer of kids’ technology. In this role, she vehemently instructs adults responsible for educating children to back away from guiding kids’ tech use. This advice, if heeded, profoundly undermines librarians’ vital leadership on children’s use of technology.

Boyd is critical of parents who set limits on kids’ tech use, labeling them as “fearful” in her Time magazine article, “Let Kids Run Wild Online,” and says, “The key to helping youth navigate contemporary digital life isn’t more restrictions. It’s freedom–plus communication.” In her book, It’s Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens, and in her editorials, Boyd tells adults that kids need little, if any, direction on tech matters. She says, “Some days, I think that my only purpose in life is to serve as [a] broken record, trying desperately to remind people that ‘the kids are alright’ … ‘the kids are alright’ … ‘the kids are alright.’”

A Dangerous Myth

Boyd’s advice, that kids can navigate the tech environment with little help from adults, is the basic premise of the digital native-digital immigrant belief, originally put forward by video game developer Marc Prensky. He suggests that kids (“digital natives”) gain expertise with tech simply by growing up surrounded by the latest gadgets, and that adults’ (“digital immigrants’”) proper role is to load kids up with devices and essentially stand back and watch.

While commonly accepted in our popular culture, the native-immigrant belief is a tremendously harmful myth, as it confuses the ease with which kids use their gadgets with something that is far more important: understanding how kids’ use, or more typically the overuse, of entertainment technologies affects their emotional health, academic performance, and chances of success. Librarians, teachers, and parents are much better able to understand these concerns because they have adult brain development and greater life experience.

Nonetheless, the native-immigrant belief—which is heavily promoted by those invested in kids having no limits on their gadget use—has helped convince American parents to “let kids run wild online,” as the Kaiser Family Foundation reports that the “majority of 8- to 18-year-olds say they don’t have any rules about the type of media content they can use or the amount of time they can spend with the medium.” The result is that teens now spend an incredible 8 hours a day between various entertainment screen technologies (e.g., video games and social networks) and talking and texting on the phone, while spending a scant 16 minutes a day using the computer at home for school.

Our kids’ wired-for-amusement lives clearly interfere with librarians’ goals of advancing kids’ reading and academic success. The more kids play video games the less time they spend reading and doing homework, and the less well they do academically. Similarly, the more time kids spend social networking the less well they do in school. This overuse of entertainment tech is one reason American students are increasingly struggling against their global peers. The latest Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) results are disturbing to say the least: the U.S. now ranks 30th in math, 23rd in science, and 20th in reading compared to the 64 other countries that took the exam.

Which kids are hurt most by advice that they should be given “freedom” with digital devices? Those of color whose parents have less access than more economically-advantaged families to guidance from college counselors and high-performing schools that kids are better served by focusing on schoolwork and productive uses of technology than playing with devices. A recent Pew Research Center report outlined troubling figures: 34% of African-American and 32% of Hispanic teens are online “almost constantly,” while 19% of White teens report using the Internet this often. Because teens’ top online activities are gaming and social networking, the extremely high levels of smartphone/online use by kids of color are likely to expand the racial achievement gap.

How Can Librarians Provide Leadership on Kids’ Technology

Consider these actions to advance children’s and teens’ success and help them use technology productively:

  • Help parents, teachers, and schools understand that the digital native-digital immigrant belief is a myth, and that children, and even teens, are not developmentally capable of navigating the tech environment alone.
  • Encourage caregivers to limit kids’ use of entertainment technologies, and instead foster their learning of educational fundamentals (e.g., reading and math) and productive uses of technology.
  • Advocate that families “parent like a tech exec.” In stark contrast to Boyd’s advice, Bill Gates (the co-founder of Boyd’s own company, Microsoft) set strong limits on his own kids’ tech use, as did Apple’s Steve Jobs and other leading tech execs, as described in the New York Times’ article, “Steve Jobs Was a Low-Tech Parent.” Typical limits set by tech execs include no gadget use on weekdays, computers only being used for homework on school nights, and no screens in the bedroom.
  • Make special efforts to reach out to children and families of color, as well as less advantaged families, to promote kids’ focus on reading, academics, and the productive use of technology.


©Larry Odell
©Larry Odell

Today’s guest post was written by Richard Freed, Ph.D., the author of Wired Child: Debunking Popular Technology Myths, a practical guide for raising kids in the digital age. A child and adolescent psychologist with more than twenty years of clinical experience, Dr. Freed completed his professional training at Cambridge Hospital/Harvard Medical School and the California School of Professional Psychology. He lives in Walnut Creek, California with his wife and two daughters. To learn more, visit

Please note that as a guest post, the views expressed here do not represent the official position of ALA or ALSC.

If you’d like to write a guest post for the ALSC Blog, please contact Mary Voors, ALSC Blog manager, at


  1. M E Shenefiel

    While I agree that letting kids “run wild” with technology seems irresponsible, I have to respectfully disagree with a few of the points presented in this article. You state, “Our kids’ wired-for-amusement lives clearly interfere with librarians’ goals of advancing kids’ reading and academic success.” This statement implies that librarians’ only goal is to ensure “academic” success. You also state, “Encourage caregivers to limit kids’ use of entertainment technologies, and instead foster their learning of educational fundamentals (e.g., reading and math) and productive uses of technology.”

    As a school librarian my true goal is to help my students become the best and happiest people that they can. I want them to be able to think critically and creatively, problem solve, collaborate and communicate clearly with others, and have the resilience to regroup and re-try when they encounter failure. Yes, I want them to be strong readers, and if their goal is academic success, I’m there to support and nurture them. Success (in life) is not always defined by academic success, however. I’m not exactly clear on what is meant by “productive uses of technology,” but I think it’s presumptive to assume that just because I child is being entertained online that they are not also developing essential skills.

    I believe that adults do need to be present and provide guidance to children as they navigate the online world, but I also believe that allowing children to play (safely) online is beneficial to the development of the whole child. The trick is to find the balance. Everything in moderation.

    1. Amanda

      Thank you for this comment. I am very confused about how we are differentiating between “productive uses of technology” and non-productive ones. Someone may only spend 16 minutes a day on the computer for school, but that does not mean that they are not learning during the other times. And what of the community building that happens online? These online communities can be lifelines for LGBTQ youth, for example. That seems like a productive use of technology to me.

      1. Richard Freed

        Amanda, I appreciate you taking the time to read and comment on the post. To address your question about productive vs. entertainment technology use, I believe it’s important that we look more carefully at both how much time our kids spend on tech and what they are doing with tech. Perhaps, not surprisingly, the unbelievable 8 hours a day kids spend with entertainment tech (video games, social networks, online videos, TV, etc.) is displacing their engagement in activities librarians have traditionally encouraged, including reading and school-based learning.

        And as I noted in a prior response, I believe librarians should play a strong role in encouraging the academic success and college admission chances of children, both of which are put in peril by the overuse of entertainment tech. Librarians can play an especially important role in the lives of teens of color who spend much more time using academic-thwarting entertainment technologies than white kids, and also have less access than more advantaged kids to resources that demonstrate the importance of a college education.

        I agree with your concern that LGBTQ youth should have access to online resources, which is a great opportunity for librarians to provide direction to kids about using the Internet to access information rather than overusing it for self-amusement at the expense of their happiness (kids who spend more time with electronic media tend to be less happy) and success. And in contrast to popular culture directives to let kids run wild online, I feel librarians have an important role in helping LGBTQ youth find positive resources and avoid potentially harmful experiences online, as these youth are nearly three times more likely to be bullied or harassed online than non-LGBTQ youth.

    2. Richard Freed

      M.E. Shenefiel, thank you for your response. I share your goal of helping our children find balance in their lives. Unfortunately, our kids’ lives are fully out of balance, as their profound overuse of entertainment technologies (e.g., video games and social networks) is coming at the expense of reading and academic success. For example, the typical teen spends 8 hours a day with playtime screens which displaces their reading, focus on school, and chances of college admission. As a child and adolescent psychologist, I have worked with countless families whose children’s chances of college admission have been undone by the overuse of video games or social networks.

      I therefore advocate that librarians take a highly proactive role in helping children achieve academic success—especially for less advantaged children. Our economy increasingly demands a college education, and those without are much less likely to find a job and struggle with poverty. As noted by Pew Research Center, “Fully 22% with only a high school diploma are living in poverty, compared with 6% of today’s college-educated young adults.” Importantly, the White House has recognized that disadvantaged children especially need help in obtaining college admission, noting in a recent report: “Low-income students often lack the guidance and support they need to prepare for college.”

      Addressing the overuse of entertainment screens is especially vital for less advantaged children, with a recent Pew study showing that a disproportionate number of teens of color are online “almost constantly.” Because teens’ top online activities are gaming and social networking (both of which are associated with lower academic performance), this overuse of entertainment tech is thwarting these kids’ chances of attending college. I see this as a remarkable leadership opportunity for librarians, instead of following those who suggest we should let kids run wild online.

      I also believe that emphasizing librarians’ role in fostering kids’ academic success will advance the profession’s success. Because American children are slipping further and further behind students around the world, parents and school administrations are increasingly demanding that monies be spent on resources that are shown to improve kids’ academic success. With two of my own children in public school, I know how important school librarians are in fostering a love of reading and for school. Yet as noted about my home state in the article, “School librarians are a rare find in California public schools,” many are questioning the need for school librarians. By helping stakeholders recognize the contribution that librarians make to student success, such as noted in the study, “A full-time school librarian makes a critical difference in boosting student achievement,” the profession can be strengthened.

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