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Giving Kids Computers Doesn't Help Them In School At All

A new study looked at organizations that give disadvantaged kids home computers and found that kids used the computers a lot—but not for schoolwork.

There’s an unspoken assumption that giving poor and disadvantaged kids computers will help them academically. That’s why there are so many organizations doling out computers and Internet access for their schools and after-school programs. But home computers? They don’t make a difference.

Slate reports on a study that gave computers to kids in California who didn’t have a computer at home. The kids took advantage of the gift—they spent 50% more of their time using a computer for social networking, playing games, and doing homework. But academically, there was no impact. From Slate:

But there was no improvement in academic achievement or attendance or anything else. There wasn’t even an improvement in computer skills. At the same time, there was no negative impact either. The access to extra computer games didn’t reduce total time spent on homework or lead to any declines in anything. They broke it down by a few demographic subgroups and didn’t find anything there either. It’s just a huge nada. Nothing happening.

The results of this research are the logical follow up to a 2008 study that looked at the effect of a voucher program in Romania, implemented to help families pay off the cost of a home computer for their kids, on education. The result: Kids whose families used the vouchers watched less TV, but had significantly lower grades in math, English, and Romanian classes. Yet another study in 2010 showed that computer use among students is is linked to a widened achievement gap among rich and poor.

The researchers behind the later study speculated on the reasoning in the Register:

The profs suggest that this is because a kid in a disadvantaged home given a computer and internet access will tend to be poorly supervised and use it mainly for gaming, social networking or other timewasting online/computer activities rather than buckling down and doing homework. Thus computered-up poor children actually become dumber than they would have been without the tech.

If parents of all the children in the most recent study had provided constant supervision, the results would probably be more heartening. But it’s easier for a distractible school-age kid (or anyone, really) to mess around on a computer than to do actual work, no matter how many online resources are available.