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.)
Malamud and Pop-Eleches chose the Euro 200 program because it solved the apples-to-oranges problem. While Euro 200 didn’t exactly hand out computers at random, it came pretty close. The program provided vouchers worth 200 euros (about $240 at the time, nearly $315 today) for computer purchases by poor families with kids. (The income cutoff was $50 per month per household member.) But there weren’t nearly enough vouchers to go around. In 2005, for example, nearly 52,000 qualified families applied, but the government had funding for only 27,555 of them. As a result, vouchers were given only to families with incomes below $17 per household member. This means that some of the families that got vouchers—those with, say, incomes between $16 and $17—were basically identical to some of those that didn’t (families with $17-$18 incomes). These families all have similar computing aspirations (they all applied to the program) and differ only in which side of the $17 cutoff they happened to sit on. (Economists call this a “regression discontinuity.”)
So what happens when good fortune delivers vouchers (and hence computers) into the homes of Romanian youths? Obviously a lot more time logged on to a computer—about seven hours more per week for vouchered versus unvouchered kids. Much of this computer time came at the expense of television-watching: Children in families that received a voucher spent 3.5 fewer hours in front of the tube per week. But computer use also crowded out homework (2.3 hours less per week), reading, and sleep. Less schoolwork translated into lower grades at school—vouchered kids’ GPAs were 0.36 grade points lower than their nonvouchered counterparts—and also lower aspirations for higher education. Vouchered kids were 13 percentage points less likely to report an intention to attend college. And, interestingly, vouchered students who were college-bound were not more likely to express interest in majoring in computer science.
When my friends and I figured out how to transform my PET from a learning tool to a proto-video-game console, my parents stepped in to make sure Space Invaders didn’t crowd out homework. Where were Romania’s parents? The voucher program was specifically designed to help poor households, and their dire financial circumstances meant that these families were probably less able to afford after-school care or otherwise see to it that the computers were used for learning and not just recreation. Indeed, the authors found that when they looked specifically at families with stay-at-home moms who may be more present and able to police computer use, the negative effects of vouchers were greatly reduced.
Perhaps not surprisingly, the lesson from Romania’s voucher experiment is not that computers aren’t useful learning tools, but that their usefulness relies on parents being around to assure they don’t simply become a very tempting distraction from the unpleasantness of trigonometry homework. But this is a crucial insight for those tasked with designing policies to bridge the digital divide. The express intent of Euro 200 was to give a boost to poor kids’ educations. Through programs such as One Laptop per Child, governments around the world have similarly committed to purchasing millions of computers to improve computer access for children. But Malamud and Pop-Eleches’ results suggest that merely providing access may be more of a curse than a blessing. If we really want to help poor kids, whether in Romania, sub-Saharan Africa, or America’s housing projects, we may want to focus on approaches that provide structured, supervised access through after-school programs or subsidies that bring technology into low-income schools. But just giving kids computers? Might as well just ship them PlayStations.