For better or for worse, homework has gone online. Children these days conduct research on the Internet, post messages to classroom discussion boards or complete Web-based learning programs. The Federal Communications Commission warns that students who don’t have fast Internet connections “are at a disadvantage relative to their connected peers,” which is one reason the government recently decided to spend billions a year helping low-income households hook up to broadband.
It’s hard to deny the importance of building digital skills. But computers are not just productivity machines — they are also portals to distraction. There is the question of the teenage attention span: If fully-grown adults struggle to stay focused in front of a Web browser, how can we expect this of kids? Every moment spent playing "Candy Crush" or checking Facebook or spamming Instagram is time taken away from physical activity, or, you know, sleep.
And so, computers can sometimes feel like a necessary evil. Parents fret: Do the costs of having children use a computer at home outweigh the benefits?
Several years ago, economists conducted a fascinating and first-of-its-kind experiment to answer that question. Some of the latest results from that project, which were released Monday in a working paper from the National Bureau of Economic Research, show that the benefits of having a computer at home are subtle and somewhat counterintuitive.
How computers affect school performance
Between 2008 and 2010, the researchers went around to 15 public schools in California looking for students in grades six through 10 who didn’t have access to a computer at home. These children — who were mostly low-income and represented about 24 percent of the student body — were randomly divided into two groups.
One group received free desktop machines with Windows and Microsoft Office installed, and discounted dial-up Internet service. The other group got nothing. At the end of the school year, the two were compared. The researchers say this represents the first large randomized controlled trial of home computing.
In one of the first papers from this project, published in 2013, economists Robert Fairlie and Jonathan Robinson found that the children who got free computers didn’t do better academically — but they didn’t do worse either. Grades and standardized test scores were more or less the same between the two groups.
Why didn’t the home computers boost school performance? Well, the children without computers still had a way to finish their work; they could go to the library, or use the computers at school, where their activities were probably more closely monitored.
It appears, in fact, that having a computer at home was indeed a distraction. Children reported spending a lot more time playing video games and hanging out on social networking sites. On average, they logged about 2.5 additional hours a week in front of a computer compared with their peers in the control group. Only 40 minutes of that extra time was spent on homework.
But in the end, none of this had a measurable effect. The experiment had the power to detect fairly small differences. If the computers did have an impact on average GPAs in a semester, it couldn’t have been more than about one tenth of one point in either direction — the difference between an A and an A-, basically.
Fairlie and Robinson’s report cast doubt on efforts to close the “homework gap.” As they concluded, “computer ownership alone is unlikely to have much of an impact on short-term schooling outcomes for low-income children.”
An unexpected benefit
Now, in a follow-up paper, Robert Fairlie and Ariel Kalil find that the experiment did help the children, but in an unexpected way. It made them more social — not just online, but in real life.
According to the preliminary results, children who randomly received a free computer communicated with more friends on a regular basis than students without computers. They also spent more time hanging out with those friends in person. And there wasn’t a measurable difference in experiences of cyberbullying.
“All told, the results portray a pattern of small positive benefits to youth’s social development and no significant evidence of increasing social isolation,” Fairlie and Kalil write.
The children who saw the most benefit were the ones who didn’t have a social-network account at the beginning of the experiment. They became more likely to chat with friends and to meet with friends face-to-face. “The home computers allowed these children who were previously socially participating at lower levels to catch up, or at least partially catch up, with children who were previously socially participating at higher levels,” the researchers note.
In other words, computers are probably not, on balance, facilitating the next generation’s descent into solipsism or dangerous memes.
In a separate paper, Fairlie also shows that the free computers did not widen the academic achievement gap between boys and girls. Though boys did spend more time playing video games, girls spent more time on email and social-networking sites.
There's one remaining puzzle: Where were students getting all this extra time? Though the children given free computers ended up using them a lot, the other aspects of their lives didn't seem to suffer. They spent as least as much time as their peers at school activities or at social gatherings. They spent just as much time doing homework.
The researchers don’t really know what happened — it could be that students were sleeping less, or spending less time eating or exercising. But it could also be that having a computer at home saved students from having to schlep back and forth from, say, library computer labs.
An important story earlier this year detailed the struggles of students who have to do their homework on smartphones and borrowed WiFi. They drive to Starbucks so they can turn in their assignments; or they beg computer time off a friend. Having a computer at home, hooked up to Internet, avoids some of these frictions.
It’s important, of course, not to overgeneralize the results from these studies. What’s true for low-income students is not true for all students; and what was true in 2009 is not necessarily true today. The Internet may be more addicting than it was five years ago; on the other hand, not having a computer today is probably more crippling.