The $100 Distraction Device
Why giving poor kids laptops doesn't improve their scholastic performance.
More than three decades ago, Commodore introduced the PET, the world's first personal computer, apparently so-named to take advantage of the '70s craze for pet rocks. My ever-doting and education-obsessed parents brought home a PET for me and my siblings, hoping to put us at the vanguard of the digital revolution-to-be. The results were mixed at best. Though the machine was entirely unsuited to mindless fun—it had 4 kilobytes of memory and a tiny green display of monochrome ASCII characters—my friends and I found a way to turn this supposedly educational device into a toy. We spent endless hours watching a little green cursor race around the screen in a rudimentary, freestyle version of Pac-Man. Once an early edition of Space Invaders appeared, I think my parents came to regret their attempt to prepare us for the computer age.
A generation later, parents are more worried than ever about making sure their kids can compete in today's high-tech world, and the growing digital divide is a subject of great concern for educators and policymakers. Federal subsidies in the United States provide billions of dollars for computer access in schools and libraries, and billions more may soon be spent in the developing world through programs such as One Laptop per Child. But even OLPC's $100 laptop comes loaded with more distractions than my PET ever had. So will kids use these subsidized computing resources to prepare for the demands of the 21st-century job market? Or do computers just serve as a 21st-century substitute for that more venerable time-waster—the television?
New research by economists Ofer Malamud and Cristian Pop-Eleches provides an answer: For many kids, computers are indeed more of a distraction than a learning opportunity. The two researchers surveyed households that applied to Euro 200, avoucher distribution program in Romania designed to help poor households defray the cost of buying a computer for their children. It turns out that kids in households lucky enough to get computer vouchers spent a lot less time watching TV—but that's where the good news ends. "Vouchered" kids also spent less time doing homework, got lower grades, and reported lower educational aspirations than the "unvouchered" kids.
This is certainly not the first attempt to measure the costs and benefits of giving computers to kids. Some earlier studies also found that computers have a negative effect on scholastic achievement. Others found the opposite. But it's hard to know what to make of these earlier studies because they compare families that have decidedto buy computers with those that haven't, and compare kids who choose to spend their days parked in front of a computer versus those who spend their time doing other things (like studying, playing soccer, or getting up to no good). This makes any study of computer versus noncomputer kids an apples-to-oranges comparison: Parents who buy computers tend to place more value on education—they're also more likely to live in good school districts, pay for extra math classes, and generally provide a richer learning environment for their kids than parents who don't buy computers. (In my case, it's probably a lot more than access to a PET that accounts for my decision to spend 22 years in school.)
Ray Fisman is the Lambert Family professor of social enterprise and director of the Social Enterprise Program at the Columbia Business School. He is the co-author, with Tim Sullivan, of The Org: The Underlying Logic of the Office. Follow him on Twitter.
Photograph of child working on a computer by Pal Pillai/AFP/Getty Images.