Kids, computers, books

The National Bureau of Economic Research has begun circulating a report on what seems to be the largest study yet of what happens when you give a kid a computer. The news is not good, as has been reported in the last few days by David Wessel at the Wall Street Journal and by the Freakonomics crew at the New York Times.

The study, conducted by Jacob Vigdor and Helen Ladd at Duke University’s Sanford School of Public Policy, examined extensive data on all public school students in North Carolina between 2000 and 2005 (the data include students’ end-of-year exam scores in math and reading as well as information on how the students spend their time at home). Those years, as the authors note, were a time when home computer use and broadband access were both expanding rapidly. The focus of the research was on students in Grade 5 through Grade 8. The authors write:

The larger sample size available with administrative data – over half a million student/year observations – addresses one common concern with existing studies of the impact of home computer use: low power associated with small sample sizes. The longitudinal nature of the data also permit us to address concerns that students with computer access are a non-random sample of the population by comparing the test scores of students before and after they report gaining access to a home computer, or before and after their local area receives high-speed internet service.

The analysis reveals that home computers have “modest but statistically significant negative impacts” on academic performance as measured by math and reading test scores. In addition: “The introduction of high-speed internet service is similarly associated with significantly lower math and reading test scores in the middle grades.” Worse yet, “the introduction of broadband internet is associated with widening racial and socioeconomic achievement gaps.” Attempts to close the “digital divide” by, for example, subsidizing PC purchases may actually end up widening the divide between rich and poor in academic performance.

The authors are careful to note that there may be gains in other skills related to internet access in the home:

While we find no evidence that this access improves math and reading scores, it is possible that computer and internet access improves important skills that are not directly measured by standardized tests in math or reading. These skills, ranging from the ability to use basic office software to advanced programming or hardware maintenance skills, may be of considerable value in the labor market. While subsidies for home computer or internet access could still be advocated on the grounds that they improve these vocational skills, our results suggest that an additional consequence would be lower math and reading test scores, and wider test score gaps.

Previous studies have shown that students with home computers on average do better academically than students without computers. But that, according to the Vigdor/Ladd study, appears to reflect correlation rather than causation. A home computer is an indicator of general socio-economic advantages, many of which can contribute to relatively strong academic performance. When you look specifically at changes in the performance of individual students over time, Vigdor and Ladd write, “there is no evidence that home computer access improves test scores.” In fact:

Students who obtain access to a home computer sometime between 5th and 8th grade tend to score between 1% and 1.3% of a standard deviation lower on their subsequent math and reading tests. The positive cross-sectional association between home computer ownership and test scores thus reflects the digital divide: those who own computers are in general a positively selected group … Students in ZIP codes that transition from no broadband service to limited service from three or fewer providers post a statistically significant decline in math test scores. The estimated decline is a relatively strong 2.6% of a standard deviation. The impact on reading test scores is more modest and statistically insignificant. Students in ZIP codes that move beyond the four ISP threshold also exhibit modest declines in test scores. The effects are statistically significant, equivalent to 1.4% of a standard deviation in math and 1.6% of a standard deviation in reading.

Comments Vigdor on his blog: “It turns out that access to computers and broadband is, on balance, not good for kids. This is not a super-surprise for those who have followed earlier careful studies on the subject.” In the paper, he and Ladd conclude, “For school administrators interested in maximizing achievement test scores, or reducing racial and socioeconomic disparities in test scores, all evidence suggests that a program of broadening home computer access would be counterproductive.”

As the Freakonomics writers point out, the study is consistent with an earlier study that examined the effects of giving Romanian students access to computers. That study found that “having a computer at home helps kids develop computer skills … But it seems to lower their grades in math and reading.”

Vigdor and Hamm note that the negative consequences of computer use could be tempered if students began to use computers more for homework and less for goofing off. Unfortunately, there’s no evidence that that’s happening. Indeed, as Vigdor points out, “We cut off the study in 2005, so we weren’t getting into the Facebook and Twitter generation.” The opportunities to goof off with computers have expanded rapidly in recent years (and that doesn’t even take into account the explosion of texting on phones). There’s nothing wrong with kids goofing off, of course; what seems to be happening, though, is that the growing amount of time dedicated to goofing off on computers and the net is crowding out time that might otherwise go to studying (or requiring more multitasking while studying).

It is interesting to compare the computer and internet research with new studies which indicate that having books in a home may strengthen children’s academic achievement. One of the studies, published in the journal Research in Social Stratification and Mobility, reveals a strong connection between the number of books in a student’s home and the number of years of education the student completes – and the relationship seems to be more than just a matter of general socio-economic advantages. As the Chronicle of Higher Education reported:

What’s surprising … is just how strong the correlation is between a child’s academic achievement and the number of books his or her parents own. It’s even more important than whether the parents went to college or hold white-collar jobs. Books matter. A lot.

The study was conducted over 20 years, in 27 countries, and surveyed more than 70,000 people. Researchers found that children who grew up in a home with more than 500 books spent 3 years longer in school than children whose parents had only a few books. Also, a child whose parents have lots of books is nearly 20-percent more likely to finish college. For comparison purposes, the children of educated parents (defined as people with at least 15 years of schooling) were 16-percent more likely than the children of less-educated parents to get their college degrees. Formal education matters, but not as much as books.

The authors of the study conclude:

Thus it seems that scholarly culture, and the taste for books that it brings, flows from generation to generation largely of its own accord, little affected by education, occupational status, or other aspects of class … Parents give their infants toy books to play with in the bath; read stories to little children at bed-time; give books as presents to older children; talk, explain, imagine, fantasize, and play with words unceasingly. Their children get a taste for all this, learn the words, master the skills, buy the books. And that pays off handsomely in schools.

The other study, to be published later this year, also indicates a strong connection between having books at home and performing well in school, particularly for low-income students. As Salon’s Laura Miller reported, the study “found that simply giving low-income children 12 books (of their own choosing) on the first day of summer vacation ‘may be as effective as summer school’ in preventing ‘summer slide’ – the degree to which lower-income students slip behind their more affluent peers academically every year.”

We need to be concerned about the digital divide, to be sure. But perhaps we should also be thinking about the Gutenberg divide.

11 thoughts on “Kids, computers, books

  1. Murali Vasudevan

    This resonates with my personal observation and views.

    In fact, in my view books should be visible and easy to access. My 8 year old son is picking up old magazines and reading full articles.

    I wonder how this experience will be replicated in the e-book reader era.

  2. Ivo Quartiroli

    Larry Cuban, professor of education at Stanford University, has documented how U.S. education policymakers have careened from one new technology to the next – lantern slides, tape recorders, movies, radios, overhead projectors, reading kits, language laboratories, televisions, computers, multimedia, and now the Internet – sure each time that thay have discovered educational gold. eventually, the glimmer always fades, and we find ourselves holding a lump of pyrite – fool’s gold. (quoted from Alliance for Childhood. Fool’s Gold. A Critical Look at Computer in Childhood. 2001)

  3. Daniel Fath

    This research reminds me of a story about IQ tests. There was a broad study done here (I don’t have the literature to quote handy but I could look for it if the need arises) to compare the IQ levels of rural and urban children. Somewhat expected, children in rural areas got a much lower score than their urban counterparts. So what could cause such great “retardation” of the rural children. Was it the lack of books? Water?

    No, as it turns out the IQ test were designed by people from cities and they implicitly assumed a set skills needed, which the people from rural areas lacked.

    Which brings me to this – perhaps the reason children with computers score lower is that test don’t test for much computer related skills, but instead they test more book related skills?

  4. Sergio Montoro Ten

    It does not matter whether you give a child a computer or a ball. If you give it something else to do other than studying, his academic results are going to get worse. On the other side, given the fact that many brilliant people had very poor academic performance, maybe is not that bad that kids are no longer interested in that outdated ideas that the elders try to teach them at the classroom.


    If this is “causal” as you say, then we should take computers out of the home and we’ll see improvements on math and reading tests.

    Good luck with that.

    What did they use the computers for? Why not educate parents and students directly about how to use the computers for educational purposes, rather than just games and chatting. This includes the use of e-books. Why not make more e-books available for students?

    And are we seriously going to replace summer school with a stack of books? Politicians would love the cost savings of that plan.

    By the way, the Stanford Study of Writing has been showing that students’ writing skills have been improving over the past years, not declining, as a result of writing more online:

  6. Nick Carr

    Why not educate parents and students directly about how to use the computers for educational purposes, rather than just games and chatting.

    As you say: Good luck with that.

    the Stanford Study of Writing has been showing that students’ writing skills have been improving over the past years, not declining, as a result of writing more online

    I just spent a while looking around on the site you linked to, and I didn’t find the findings you refer to. Can you provide a link to those findings – I’m very interested to review the research.



  7. Kevin Kelly

    If the presence of books (whether or not you have a computer) raises scores, and the presence of computers (whether or not you have books) lowers the score, is there any evidence of what happens when you have both books and computers in your home? What factor trumps?

    I’d be willing to bet that computer + books is greater than computer alone or books alone.

  8. Kroberts39

    The factor that trumps is parenting. It either sucks or it doesn’t. Adults are going to have a PC at home if they can afford it, and the kids will have access to it. That’s a good thing. But is the kids’ time on the computer supervised? Do they have a computer in their own room? Do they also have an Xbox? An iPhone? Are they encouraged to read?

  9. Vickicobb

    As a longtime children’s nonfiction author I have observed how, in recent years, my genre is gaining traction for encouraging both reading and learning. After reading Nick’s book (I’ve written a blog about it but it won’t be posted until next fall)I am more encouraged than ever before that high-quality books that engage kids are more important than ever. Our group blog: Interesting Nonfiction for Kids ( is gaining traction and my company’s ( database for finding wonderful nonfiction for kids can serve adults as well as kids. If you want to learn something new, why not read a good kids’ book on the subject.

    I’m glad that with all the time I’ve spent online I still have the capabilities of enjoying your brillant and accessible book.

    Vicki Cobb,


    Ink Think Tank, LLC

  10. Magnus Engdahl

    As always with this kind of research, it only reveals part of the story. What were these children measured against? Let me guess, yesterdays teaching module with yesterdays mind set.

    Having books at home is good but they mean paper books. Whats so good about paper? They only collect dust.

    Reading and listening to books at home is good. E-books and audio books are best found on the Internet and read on a iPad/Kindle. Audio books are best listen to in a iPod so guess there is an advantage to have access to those. They are also cheaper then paper books and better for the environment.

    The research above seems to make some kind of correlation between PC and Internet broad band. Again yesterdays thinking pattern. Internet is already reaching out far beyond just a PC. Don’t confuse the information carrier with the information.

    The problem is not the kids and technology. The problem is the school system and the teachers that don’t know how to leverage the Internet technologies. They have yesterdays thinking pattern and processes and cannot see how to apply that to todays children and complex world. They are right, we can’t.

    I don’t see any suggestion how to solve the issue and I assume they have none because to solve a problem that has emerged at one mind set one has to transcend but include that mind set (not go backwards).

    We need new thinking patterns and systems to deal with todays and yesterdays problems. Once we solved those, it will lead to new and more complex problems tomorrow but that is just how the story goes.

    The Human spices has always used technology (and many animals do as well). Internet is just another technology. Technology that works will evolve the rest get extinct .

  11. p

    The lament of parents every where: “If only I could get my kids to spend more time on the computer. Their math and reading is fantastic, but they’re just falling behind everyone else with their Powerpoint skills…”.

    It’s always an anecdotal joke about the kids knowing how to use the VCR/DVD/computer/iPhone. And it’s true. But the conclusion then that these things are actually easy to learn and therefore not as important to teach seems to be lost on everyone.

    Why do we teach 6 year olds to use Powerpoint when every parent in the room spends their life in meetings wishing it had never been invented?

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