In January, the Joan Ganz Cooney Center released a report on young children’s media diets. The survey of more than 1,500 parents of children ages 2-10 asked a bevy of questions about educational media use. Much of the ensuing news coverage focused on the sheer volume of media use, and how little of it overall parents deemed helpful, especially when it came to science and math content.

But I found something else to be more interesting: the study shows a serious class divide on educational media use. That made me wonder, could it be that high-income parents are letting their presumptions about “screens” cloud their judgment?

The report finds that it is high-income parents who are limiting media time for their kids. Lower-income families are using more educational games. Their kids spend more time with educational digital content than kids from high-income families. (In the examples that follow, for brevity’s sake, I compare the lowest and highest income categories only, but the pattern holds across the income spectrum. And all the differences are statistically significant.)

For example,

  • Overall, 43 percent of low-income kids (whose parents earn $25,000 or less annually) use some form of educational media daily versus 25 percent of high-income kids (whose parents earn $100,000 and above).
  • Lower-income kids also spend a higher share of total screen time on educational materials than high-income children—57 percent versus 40 percent.
  • These gaps hold regardless of the type of media—whether television, mobile phones, computer games, or other video games. For example, despite having less access to mobile devices, 12 percent of low-income children are daily users of educational content on mobile devices, compared with 5 percent of high-income children.

And before one thinks it’s because low-income families aren’t as discerning as consumers, there were few notable difference in their assessment of quality—they too know that their kids aren’t learning much from Sponge Bob.

Perhaps it’s a hangover of a snobbish view of television among people who are more educated (and have a higher income). Or it could be a slightly more subtle version of equating bad parenting with TV—and now video games, apps, and other media. Or maybe it’s the common reflexive assumption that screen time is bad; the most common reason cited for not using educational media is the desire to limit screen time.

Pundits (a.k.a. elite parents) too often take a simplistic and uninformed view of digital media—in all forms—and its role in kids’ lives today. They forget that for every Sponge Bob or first-person shooter video game there’s a Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood or SimCityEdu or other “transformational” game. The New America Foundation’s Lisa Guernsey writes in Smithsonian Magazine that parents and pundits need to be careful to not treat screens as a “monolithic entity” that is “doing something ‘toxic’ to children’s developing brains.” Screen media, she points out, comes in many forms these days, many of them interactive.

These same pundits are also too quick to point fingers at low-income parents. As the Cooney Center report suggests, low-income parents aren’t just plopping their children in front of a television, as so many seem to think; in fact, grandparents in these families frequently watch alongside children. They’re also seeking out educational media for their children and using it to help prepare their children for school.

If we can get beyond the false assumptions, parents might be able to demand more, and better, educational media. Right now for media developers, the incentives are elsewhere, Jesse Schell, CEO of Schell Games and professor at Carnegie-Mellon University, told Games Industry International.

And making a good game that is transformational for the user is hard work. Schell (an accomplished juggler) says this about making games that are both fun and educational:

“Teaching is really hard. Making an entertaining game is really hard. And now we’re proposing that we’re going to do both of them simultaneously. It’s like doing stunt riding on a motorcycle and juggling, and now I’m going to do them at the same time.”

Sure, some skepticism is warranted—there’s a lot of content masquerading as “educational.” But not all of it is bunk. As parents learn more about what constitutes quality, and understand that the context of use matters, they may both buy more games and put more pressure on developers to create good, educational content, including content that brings families together, rather than isolating each family member on a separate screen in the living room.

And maybe, too, they’ll realize that lower-income families are a key market.