The digital divide for children and families is a bigger problem than lacking access to devices and connectivity. There was a time we could say phones were optional, but electronic resources have become a basic necessity, especially during the coronavirus pandemic. People need to be connected in order to do the simplest things. At the start of the pandemic, we ordered food online because we were afraid to go outside. We tried to apply for unemployment online when the offices were closed. We did our best to educate our children when schools closed. Imagine trying to do all these things without having a device or reliable internet service.
As a parent in a lower-income household, you have to navigate these hardships by yourself while you may also be terrified of losing your job, worried about how you are going to pay your rent, or uncertain whether you will be able to provide food for your family. If you have no connectivity at all, how do you even begin to solve these problems?
There’s going to be a mental health crisis in this nation that I don’t think we’ve ever seen before. The post-traumatic stress will be devastating. For some people, the stress will not be “post,” but will continue even after the pandemic is over. We know that COVID-19 is disproportionately affecting Black communities. Unemployment rates in the Black community are already at Great Depression levels, and Black-owned small businesses are going out of business at much higher rates than any other small businesses in this country.
We are watching the unwinding of all the progress that has been made over the last 30 or 40 years. With that comes stress—more specifically, toxic stress. That’s going to create a mental health challenge that will become a real handicap for children. Parents have to be able to guide their children as they develop, but being under constant stress hinders their ability to do so.
Those of us in education are trying to make up for what kids lose when their families are in a state of toxic stress. At the Harlem Children’s Zone, we are implementing mental health supports for kids and families into our plan for the pandemic recovery. It’s important that we create a cultural and environmental experience with children reinforcing that they are important, that they are smart, that we care about them, and that we—the adults—have power and that power will protect them.
Geoffrey Canada is the president of Harlem Children's Zone.
This essay was written as part of the Common Sense research report Tweens, Teens, Tech, and Mental Health: Coming of Age in an Increasingly Digital, Uncertain, and Unequal World. Learn more about the report.