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

Who's Wired and Who's Not: Children's Access to and Use of Computer Technology
Henry Jay Becker


In nearly every American city, town, and neighborhood, the personal computer and its electronic offspring have affected young people's lives. This new Net generation is evidenced in adolescents playing computer games or surfing the Web, in young children learning abstractions through playful computer-centered environments, in precocious hackers busily investigating and modifying the performance of software, in preteens partaking in online chats and electronic mail, and in the many young people expressing themselves with the help of writing and graphic arts software tools. Yet other children and adolescents in these same communities have hardly been affected by computer technology. Just as a great many young people have been transformed by the electronic culture, others—whether due to lack of interest, lack of understanding, or lack of opportunity—seem barely touched.

Such differences have raised concerns about the emergence of a "digital divide" between the children on one side who are benefitting from computer technology and the children on the other side who are being left behind. This article examines the extent of children's access to computers in schools and at home and describes general patterns of computer technology presence and use in both settings. Most of the data concerning school computers presented in this article are from original analyses of responses to a national survey of more than 4,000 teachers, Teaching, Learning and Computing: 1998—A National Survey of Schools and Teachers (TLC-1998).1 The primary data source for children's home computer use is the U.S. Census Bureau's Current Population Survey of U.S. Households (CPS), 1997 and 1998 supplements, which gathered information on home computer and Internet access from parents about more than 23,000 children. Although a few years old, these surveys remain valuable because of their size and comprehensiveness.2 Data from all three surveys were analyzed to examine how demographic factors relate to opportunities to use computers, and how computer use is affected by conditions in schools and at home—such as teacher objectives for student computer use and the technology related experiences of family members. Finally, key conclusions and interpretations are offered in the hopes of guiding efforts to shrink the digital divide and to ensure equal access to the effective use of computers for all of America's children.