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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

Home Computers and How They Are Used

Outside of school, children are most likely to access a computer in their homes. A home computer can provide children with a useful tool for helping them with homework and playing games. If connected to the Internet, a home computer can provide children with a vast array of material for both their education and entertainment, as well as a vehicle for informal "chats" or sending e-mail to friends and cybermates. The effects of children's access to computers at home are still being explored (see the article by Subrahmanyam and colleagues in this journal issue). However, the data describing children's access to and use of home computers in the United States are clear: the digital divide separating children in socioeconomically advantaged homes from children in socioeconomically disadvantaged homes is mammoth.

Access to Home Computers

Overall, children's access to home computers and the Internet has been increasing rapidly, according to data from the 1997 and 1998 CPS supplements.2 In the 15 months between these two surveys, the proportion of children living in homes with computers increased by 4.6 percentage points (from 51.9% to 56.5%), and the proportion of children with home access to the Internet increased by 7.5 percentage points (from 26.5% to 34.0%). But some groups of children are much more likely to have access to home computers and the Internet than others. Income, education, and ethnicity are key predictors of access. The data also show that if parents use computers at work, they are much more likely to provide access to broadly functional computers at home. The extent of the disparities in home access for different groups of children is discussed further below.

Key Demographic Predictors of Access

The digital divide in access to home computers is illustrated dramatically in the data from the 1998 CPS. According to these data, the largest differences in access to a home computer and the Internet were between children from low-income and high-income families, and between children whose parents had limited education and children whose parents had graduate degrees.28 As illustrated in Figure 5, only about 22% of children living in families with annual incomes under $20,000 had a home computer in 1998, compared with 91% of children living in families with incomes of more than $75,000. Similarly, only about 16% of children living with parents who had not graduated from high school had a home computer, compared with 91% of children with a parent having at least a master's degree.29 In addition, community effects exacerbate the already large family-level SES differences in children's access to computers. Because of residential segregation by SES, children living in low-SES families without access to home computers also tend to live in low-SES neighborhoods, where they are less likely than children living in wealthier communities to have access through a neighbor or friend.30

The likelihood of children's home access to a computer and the Internet is also highly related to ethnicity. As shown in Figure 5, African-American and Hispanic children were far less likely to have a computer or Internet access at home than other children. Earlier analyses of CPS data indicate that among households at the same income levels (whether or not children were present), African Americans are about three years behind, and Hispanics are about four years behind, white non-Hispanics in terms of their likelihood of owning home computers.31 Even among families with similar incomes and parent education levels, most African-American and Hispanic children had at least 10% less access to home computers and the Internet than white non-Hispanic or Asian-American children.32 Two interpretations of these findings are plausible. First, computers may be valued differently by the various ethnic groups. Second, economic factors not measured by current income—such as accumulated personal wealth—might enter into computer acquisition decisions.

In addition, children's access to home computers correlated highly with their parents' work-based experience with computers. According to data captured in the 1997 CPS supplement, children with two parents using computers at work are much more likely to have a computer at home than those with no parent using a computer at work (see Figure 6). Of course, much of this difference results from higher income and better-educated parents who are more likely to use a computer at work. However, even within SES groups, parents who use a computer at work are more likely to have a computer at home. In fact, work-based computer use appears to play an especially important role in increasing the likelihood of poorer and less-educated families having a home computer, holding other factors constant.33

In contrast with the differences based on income, education, ethnicity, and parents' work-based experience, differences in home computer access based on children's age and gender are quite small. The 1998 CPS data show variations in access between younger children and adolescents to be about 9%34 and variations between boys and girls to be, at most, 1%.35

Quality of Access Also Linked to Demographics

Children's access to home computers can be described not only by the presence of a computer, but also by the computer's functionality and the number of computers in the household. Five features of functionality are important in providing access to a broad range of applications on a home computer:

  • A hard disk drive,
  • A CD-ROM drive,
  • A printer,
  • A modem (or other Internet access device), and
  • A mouse (or other pointer control device).

These features determine what the home computer enables children to do. Without hard disks and CD-ROM storage, for example, children cannot use information resources such as graphically appealing multimedia encyclopedias, complex simulation environments, or even literacy tools such as a thesaurus and spelling dictionary. Without printers, they cannot have hard copies of their creations for display. Without modems, they cannot access the huge world of information and communication provided by the Internet.

As of late 1997, CPS data indicate that nearly 60% of children who had a computer of any kind in their home had access to a computer with all five features (about 30% of all children), and that about 25% lived in a multiple-computer household (about 12% of all children). How recently a household acquired a computer made some difference in the likelihood of a home computer having broad functionality. For example, 64% of home computers acquired in the previous year had all five features, whereas this was true of only 45% of those purchased in 1994 or earlier. Clearly, some homes upgrade older computers to meet new opportunities for functionality whereas others do not.

Income, education, and ethnicity are strong predictors of whether or not children have access to a home computer, as well as strong predictors of the quality of access. Even among households with computers, children living in families with higher incomes and education were much more likely to have a computer that had all five features of functionality or to have multiple computers in their homes.36 But when the disparities in computer access are compounded by the disparities in computer functionality, the differences between some ethnic and SES groups are monumental. Table 3 lists the groups of children who were most and least likely to have quality access to a home computer from among all families, not just those with computers, according to 1997 CPS data.

Similarly, parents' experience with computers at work is also, once again, linked to quality of access. In households with computers, a child's likelihood of having a broadly functional computer and multiple computers present was significantly greater when two parents used computers at work (see Figure 7).37

The evidence presented here suggests that the digital divide separating socioeconomically advantaged and disadvantaged children in their access to home computers is quite large, and may be growing even larger. Even as poor families with little education obtain basic computers, limited software, and modems to link to the Internet; wealthier and more educated families obtain multiple computers, sophisticated software, and high-speed links to the Internet. Moreover, many uses of computers require skills and experience in information management and other technical areas that socioeconomically disadvantaged children are less likely to procure through family, friends, and personal opportunity.

Home Computers Used Most for Games and Schoolwork

As of 1998, just about the same percentage of homes had computers as did classrooms: 57% of homes with children and adolescents had computers,38 and 51% of 4th through 12th-grade classrooms had computers. 39 At school, however, a student's opportunity to use computers is constrained by the regimentation of the daily schedule and the number of students sharing available resources. In contrast, at home, a child's opportunity to use a computer depends more on the child's own interest, prerequisite skills, and available time.40 These factors suggest that children are more likely to use a computer at home than a computer at school. According to CPS data, when a computer was present in the home, nearly 9 of 10 children used it to some extent.41 With a computer in slightly more than half of all children's homes, that translates to about 45% of school-age children being home computer users. But how often and for what purpose these children use their home computers is also important.

About 60% of the children in families owning computers were reported to be "regular users," using the home computer at least three days per week, according to the 1997 CPS data. At the same time, playing games has always been the primary use of home computers for children. Some computer games teach school-related skills, but only about half as many parents reported their children's use of home computers for educational programs as reported use for playing games. Thus, despite claims by most parents that their children's use of home computers has some relationship to school, the educational value of the games they play may be fairly modest. After games, however, the next most frequently reported activity on the home computer for children older than age eight was use specifically for school assignments.

Perhaps surprisingly, given the recent growth of and media attention surrounding the Internet, as of 1998, more children used home computers to run stand-alone software than to go online. Only about 34% of school-age children lived in households with home Internet access. Often, children did not use the Internet even when available—its use limited by cumbersome access and by a child's age.42 However, children's use of home computers to access the Internet has been growing rapidly. In the 15 months between the 1997 and 1998 CPS surveys, home use of the Internet among children and adolescents grew from 14% to 23%.43

In addition, several surveys have found that those children who use the Internet go online rather frequently. For example, a Roper-Annenberg survey of parents found that half of the children ages 8 to 17 using the Internet from home were reported to use it about once every three days.44 Another survey of children themselves found even higher rates of access: 60% of Internet users said they used the Internet at least once per week, and 15% said they used it every day.45 Although only a small minority of all 8- to 17-year-olds engage in such frequent home Internet use, the diffusion of this relatively new technology among young people has been quite rapid.46 In a global survey including 1,000 American households with a connection to the Internet, teens ages 13 to 19 were found to use online services significantly more than adults, even young adults ages 20 to 29.47

For the most part, the types of activities children engage in through the Internet parallel those for computer use in general. In both the CPS and Roper-Annenberg surveys, the most commonly reported single home-based Internet activity for teens was "homework" (38% in Internet households; 13% of all children). Similarly, in the CPS study, parents reported that more children used the Internet to do "research for school" than any other activity (20% of all children). However, both studies found that most other Internet activities were recreational in nature—such as e-mail, chat rooms, Web-based games, Web surfing, and listening to music—and that taken together, more time was spent on these predominantly recreational activities than on school-related work.48 In addition, as illustrated in Figure 8, children's use of the Internet for e-mail increased dramatically between 1997 and 1998, whereas use of the Internet for information retrieval remained the same or even declined for all but the youngest age group. Thus, the data indicate that children's growing Internet use is being driven more by their personal choice than by teacher directives, and that it is oriented at least as much toward recreational pursuits as toward formal learning.

Although much of children's increasing activity on the Internet appears to be for entertainment rather than education, recreational uses can help children develop competencies that have academic value. For example, playing games may enhance strategy and planning skills, and using e-mail may improve verbal skills. Therefore, the question still remains whether or not children and teens who are heavy users of home computers and the Internet—even if primarily for recreational pursuits—are nevertheless gaining skills, knowledge, and educational advantages compared with those who lack such access.

Factors Affecting Use of Home Computers

Among families with home computers, some children and adolescents are more likely to take advantage of that technology than others. To determine which factors have the largest effects on the frequency and type of children's use of home computers, data on more than 11,000 children from the 1997 CPS were analyzed. Results of this analysis indicate that the age of the child was the strongest predictor of use. The functionality of the computer and the experience of family members also were important factors. Family SES level was still found to be significant, but gender was found to have little effect on children's use of home computers.49

Age of Child Most Strongly Linked to Use

With few exceptions, the 1997 CPS data indicate that older children used the computer more often and with different applications and types of software than did younger children. Early adolescents (ages 12 to 14) appeared to use home computers somewhat more than all other age groups analyzed, including both older teens (ages 15 and older) and preteens (ages 9 to 11). The youngest children studied (ages 6 to 8) used the computer significantly less often than the older children for most activities except educational programs and games (see Figure 9).50 However, as mentioned earlier, more recent data indicate that use of the Internet has been increasing rapidly, especially among younger children. Younger children may simply be following the lead of older children—or they may be responding to the growth in professionally organized Web-based activities and Web sites oriented toward younger age groups (see the article by Montgomery in this journal issue).

The Computer's Features and Family's Experience Also Important

The functionality of the home computer was the second strongest predictor of children's home computer use, followed by the family's computer experience. Children, especially older teens, used their home computers more frequently and with a wider variety of applications when the computers had all of the features used to define full functionality: a hard disk drive, a CD-ROM drive, a printer, a modem, and a mouse or similar pointer control. Internet applications and educational software were most affected by home computer quality because they require the extra features of a modem and CD-ROM.

The computer experience of family members, both inside and outside the home, also affected children's home computer use.51 Parents' work experiences with computers had the broadest effects across a majority of the measures. Parents' knowledge and experience appeared to help children ages 9 to 11 in particular with such applications as e-mail and the Web. To a lesser extent, parents' experience with diverse software appears to help older children with some of the more complex computer applications, such as desktop publishing and spreadsheets. Children also were more likely to use home computers if their older siblings did so and if they used computers themselves at school. Among the youngest children studied, computer use at school was linked to computer use at home for a variety of basic applications, from educational software to computer games.

SES Level Still Significant

Just as children in families with lower income and less-educated parents were much less likely to have a computer in their home—or, if they had a computer, to have one with many features—such children were also less likely to use their family's computer in various ways. Data from the 1997 CPS supplement indicate that, even among computer-owning families, children who were socioeconomically more advantaged were more likely to use each of the six applications measured (see Figure 10). SES disparities were greatest in children's use of home computers for word processing: 50% of the children from high-SES families with home computers used word processing, compared with only 24% of the children from low-SES families with home computers. If all children in each SES group are considered—not just those with a computer at home—the differences become enormous: 44% of all high-SES children reported use of home computers for word processing, compared with fewer than 4% of all low-SES children. Such data make clear that children from lower-SES families are far less likely to use computers at home for what many middle class children experience as common, ordinary activities.

In this analysis of factors, however, two of the factors already discussed—home computer quality and parents' computer use at work—were found to account for a large part of the relationship between SES and children's use of home computers. That is, the SES differences in children's use of educational software and e-mail on their home computers were much smaller among families with computers with the same level of functionality and among families whose parents have the same level of work-based computer experience. Still, even when these two factors are held constant, higher-SES children used a wider range of applications overall—and word processing in particular—than did lower-SES children.

Gender Found to Have Little Effect

The analysis of 1997 CPS data found similar patterns of home computer use for both boys and girls. Adolescent girls were reported to use computers three or more days per week nearly as often as were adolescent boys (30% versus 31% for ages 15 to 17; and 34% versus 37% for ages 12 to 14).52 Only small differences existed between the percentages of same-age boys and girls using home computers for any given activity. The largest gender differences were in the use of games (75% for boys versus 68% for girls) and word processing (36% for boys versus 41% for girls). Boys' and girls' reported use of home computers for other activities did not vary by more than one or two percentage points.53

In addition, the 1998 CPS data found boys and girls were equally likely to use the Internet from home; types of Internet use again varied only slightly.54 Other surveys have shown more significant gender differences, however. For example, the 1998 Roper Youth Report found that girls were more likely to socialize online through chat rooms, e-mail, and surveys on Web pages, whereas boys were more likely to play online games and download software.45 The main issues regarding gender may have less to do with access or categories of software used, however, than with attitudinal and interest dimensions.55 (For further discussion of gender issues, see the article by Subrahmanyam and colleagues in this journal issue.)

In sum, among families with home computers, children use the computer as much for entertainment as for educational purposes. Key factors affecting how often a child uses a home computer—and for what—are the age of the child, the presence of a broadly functional computer, experienced family members, and family SES. Older children from more advantaged backgrounds, and those with a broadly functional computer and experienced family members, are more likely to use a home computer more often and with a wider variety of software than are younger, poorer children and those without such equipment and support. However, whereas disparities in children's access to home computers persist, it appears that once children have access, some gaps in home computer use—such as between younger and older children and between boys and girls—are closing.