Hundreds of efforts to reduce the so-called "digital divide" could be in trouble today, as new research has revealed that giving children universal home computers and internet access actually widens achievement gaps in maths and reading between rich and poor - and causes an overall skills decline across society to boot.
The new study was conducted by professors Jacob Vigdor and Helen Ladd of the Duke University Sanford School of Public Policy in North Carolina. The profs used data from the period 2000 to 2005, when the presence of home computers and broadband internet availability increased massively across their survey area of North Carolina.
"We cut off the study in 2005, so we weren't getting into the Facebook and Twitter generation," says Vigdor. "The technology was much more primitive than that. IM (instant messaging) software was popular then, and it's been one thing after the other since then. Adults may think of computer technology as a productivity tool first and foremost, but the average kid doesn't share that perception."
Sampling more than 150,000 children, Vigdor and Ladd compared maths and reading scores before and after acquisition of a home computer and against other students without one. They were also able to see the effects of broadband internet as it rolled out across the survey area.
There were already significant differences in kids' achievement across racial and socioeconomic lines. People often worry that such gaps will be enhanced as richer families acquire computers and internet connections and poorer households don't, which has led to many initiatives by governments, charities etc designed to get digital technologies into the hands of even the poorest.
According to Vigdor and Ladd, this doesn't work. They write:
[The] evidence suggests that providing universal access to home computers and high-speed internet access would broaden, rather than narrow, math and reading achievement gaps.
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.
This syndrome was much less marked or absent in wealthier households where kids are more closely supervised, but so severe was the negative effect of technology on North Carolina that overall the state's maths and reading scores dropped by "modest but statistically significant" amounts as digital technology arrived.
With many public and private bodies around the world - not least the two profs' own university - madly giving out computers and seeking to achieve universal net access right now, the report (published here, subscription required) will be sobering reading for many. ®