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Journal Issue: Children and Computer Technology Volume 10 Number 2 Fall/Winter 2000

Children and Computer Technology: Analysis and Recommendations
Margie K. Shields Richard E. Behrman

The Importance of Access

Computer technology has transformed society in profound ways. For better or worse, the increasing pervasiveness of computer technology is a reality no one can ignore. Computers are fast becoming integrated into nearly every aspect of daily living—from school to work, to banking and shopping, to paying taxes and even voting. They provide access to a wide range of information without a trip to the library. They convey personal messages in place of the post office or telephone. And they compete with newspapers, radio, and television in providing entertainment and news of the day.

Computer technology also has a profound effect on our economy. Not only are computers changing the way goods and services are manufactured, distributed, and purchased, but they are also changing the skills workers need to be productive and earn a living. Almost every job today requires at least some knowledge of computers, and for an increasing number of jobs, productivity is directly related to an individual's level of computer expertise.3 As the economy moves increasingly to computer-based work, the changes are bringing a societal transformation as significant as the Industrial Revolution. Just as society was transformed when families migrated from an agrarian way of life to work in factories 200 years ago, in the “Digital Age,” computer technology is transforming society by enabling many people to work anytime, anywhere, freed from a workplace anchored in time and space.4

Political participation is also changing because of computer technology. The Internet is increasingly the primary access point for disseminating information about government policies, programs, and services. E-mail lists and chat rooms have become popular vehicles for forming political coalitions at the national, state, and local levels. In 1999, more than 23 million individual taxpayers (about 19%) filed their returns via the Internet, and the number is expected to double by 2006.5 And in what many see as the wave of the future, the nation's first legally binding public election using the Internet took place in March 2000, when 42% of those voting in Arizona's Democratic Party presidential primary cast their ballots online.6

The public generally agrees that for children to participate socially, economically, and politically in this new and different world, they must acquire a certain level of comfort and competence in using computers. National polls indicate widespread support for providing children with access to computers to enable them to learn adequate computer skills and improve their education.7 In surveys, most parents and children report that they view computers and the Internet as a positive force in their lives, despite concerns about exposure to inappropriate commercial, sexual, and violent content.8 Most parents believe that the Internet can help children with their homework and allow them to discover fascinating, useful things, and that children without access are disadvantaged compared to those with access.9 According to Chen's commentary in this journal issue, in the minds of many parents and policymakers, “equality of digital opportunity” is fast becoming synonymous with “equality of educational opportunity.”

As a result, growing numbers of parents are providing their children with access to computers at home.2,10,11 Among households with children ages 2 to 17, home computer ownership jumped from 48% in 1996 to 70% in 2000, while connections to the Internet catapulted from 15% to 52% over the same 5-year period.2 This rapid diffusion of technology is quite phenomenal—the spread of Internet access has been described as nine times faster than that of radio, four times faster than the personal computer, and three times faster than television.12

In addition, Congress has made it a national priority to provide all our nation's children with access to computers at school. Declaring that the use of technology can help students meet high standards of learning, and that such use is essential to develop and maintain a technologically literate citizenry and an internationally competitive workforce, in 1994 Congress enacted the Goals 2000: Educate America Act and the Improving America's Schools Act and created several programs to help elementary and secondary schools acquire and use technology to improve the delivery of educational services.13 (See Appendix A by Linda G. Roberts, director of the Office of Educational Technology, U.S. Department of Education.) Largely as a result of these programs, between 1994 and 1999, the percentage of public elementary and secondary schools with computers connected to the Internet increased from 35% to 95%.1

Children are spending an increasing amount of time with computers at school and at home, yet surprisingly little systematic research has examined the effects of computer use on children. Nevertheless, as detailed throughout the remainder of this article, the limited data available, combined with the rich body of literature on child development, learning, and children's use of other media, suggest certain general observations. First, children's healthy development requires involvement in a variety of physical and social activities. The time children spend in front of screens of any type should not take up a disproportionate amount of their day. Second, parents, teachers, and other adults who work with children need guidance and support in their efforts to ensure that all children learn to use computers effectively and responsibly. More “high-quality” digital content and models of exemplary technology-supported practices are needed—uses of computers to educate and inspire, not just entertain. And third, evidence suggests that use of computers can improve learning among children under certain circumstances, but these circumstances may be more limited than parents and policymakers realize. Much remains to be accomplished if we are to ensure that our nation's children not only acquire the necessary skills to use computers effectively as a tool in their daily lives, but also benefit from technology's potential to enrich their learning both inside and outside the classroom.