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Bridging the digital divide [Commentary]

As parents, we spend countless hours trying to keep our kids balanced, so that they get just the right mix of physical and mental stimulation. Sometimes that means limiting their computer and Internet time so they can play outdoors or focus on something other than a screen. I know I hear myself say this at least three times a week at home with my own two children.

But what about kids who don't have as much digital access as ours? What about kids who don't own computers, whose families don't subscribe to broadband at home or who have to go to the library just to finish their homework? These kids need as much time on computers as they can get, or they'll fall behind in school.

While many may think the term "Digital Divide" is passé in 2014, it's a term that remains very real to those 30 percent of American households without broadband access to the Internet. But it's more than just a divide; it's an inequality, as those with limited access will ultimately have less confidence mastering the various technologies and skills needed to thrive in the 21st century.

Digital literacy is a prerequisite for professional and academic success. Finding and applying for jobs often takes place entirely online. Students receive assignments via email. Basic government services are routinely offered online. More than 75 percent of colleges take their applications online, and nearly all Fortune 500 companies post new jobs through their websites. And these all require computers with Internet access — no one should have to apply for a job or do their homework on a smartphone.

Just as important as mastering these computer and online skills is knowing how to use them in an appropriate and safe manner — a serious challenge for children in low-income homes where their parents and guardians do not use the technology daily. Boys & Girls Clubs have found success in bridging this gap by offering technology literacy programs at our clubs after school. Many of our clubs, including the Boys & Girls Clubs of Metropolitan Baltimore, are outfitted with broadband access and technology programs providing thousands of kids with the opportunity to master these skills — ranging from word processing and Internet safety to digital arts and robotics. We also ensure that the access our club members get online is truly the right access by teaching them how to properly use the Internet in a safe environment monitored by caring adults.

To become full citizens of the digital age, young people need to apply the skills and lessons learned at the club in their own homes. But in too many low-income homes there is no broadband connection or even an understanding of the value that connection can bring.

One of our digital skills partners, Comcast, has taken on this challenge in Baltimore and throughout the country. Its Internet Essentials program offers low-income families $10-a-month broadband, an ultra-low cost computer and free digital literacy training to make sure first-time users can navigate a vast online world. In just two years the program has brought a million Americans online.

The impact of this approach is very real to members of the many local Boys & Girls Clubs providing digital access on site and partnering with Comcast to offer Internet Essentials to families at home. Children are learning not to give out any personal information over the Internet and how to handle cyber bullying along with technical skills that could affect their future employability. These are lifelong lessons that keep our children safe as they move further into the digital world.

For those of us working to level the playing field for disadvantaged youth, overcoming digital inequality is one of the great challenges of the 21st century. Meeting that challenge requires constant opportunities to safely connect — in the classroom, after school and in the home — so that one day every parent can have the luxury of worrying about whether their child has had too much screen time.

Jim Clark is president and CEO of Boys & Girls Clubs of America, whose more than 4,000 clubs serve nearly 4 million young people through membership and community outreach. His email is bgca.president@bgca.org.

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