More discouraging words on kids and computers

Matt Richtel’s story today in the New York Times about the downside of closing the digital divide has me thinking about a slice of this I tackled a while ago.

I think I’m still comfortable with my conclusion, although it is discouraging to read more about the unintended consequences of opening the digital world to all.

Here’s the column I wrote in 2010:

Publication:  San Jose Mercury News
Web Headline:  Cassidy: Do home computers help kids learn?
Reporter:  By Mike Cassidy,
Day:  Sunday
Print Run Date:  8/1/2010
Section:  Business
Edition:  Valley Final
Page Number:  1
Section Letter:  E
Text:  If you’re looking for a reason to put your wallet away before buying your kid a home computerfor the upcoming school year, two studies may give you the ammunition you need. (Sorry, kids.)The research shows that having a computerat home does not necessarily raise students’ test scores, and that in some cases, especially in low-income households, it actually hurts scores.When I read about the results in a New York Times column by San Jose State business professor Randall Stross, I was bummed. I’ve written before about the power of computersto change lives for the better.

Just last month, I wrote about a Santa Clara County program that helps parents cope with troublesome kids. After finishing the course, a few poor families were awarded recycled computersto take home. It seemed like a way to open up whole new worlds.

It would be stubbornly ignorant to disregard the new studies simply because they don’t fit my world view. But I’m not ready to embrace them as a reason to hold off on your kid’s computer (you can reach for that wallet again) or to discontinue philanthropic efforts to provide equal footing for families that can’t afford a computerof their own.

Instead, I see the studies as an important reminder that is especially important in Silicon Valley. It’s easy here in the land of technology to see computersas the solution to every problem, as a magic wand that can make the world a better place. Of course, that has never been the case.

Instead, the computeris just part of the answer. What goes with it — training, boundaries, support — is every bit as important to encouraging a student’s success.

“I think the easy conclusion on something like that is that you stick a powerful tool in somebody’s hand and it doesn’t mean squat until you let them know what to do with it, ” says Rushton Hurley, of the Krause Center for Innovation, a Los Altos Hills institute that offers teachers technology training.

One of the two studies was conducted in North Carolina by two Duke University professors and can be found at The other, done in Romania by researchers from the University of Chicago and Columbia University, is at

The recent studies don’t unequivocally answer the question why — why do the test scores go down — but they do speculate.

And yes, the problem is Facebook. OK, not Facebook entirely, but if you have kids and computers, think about what they do with them. Sure, a term paper or two and maybe a PowerPoint for class. And then Facebook and Google chat and YouTube. Or maybe Facebook, Google chat, YouTube and then homework. Or maybe forget homework.

Which gets us back to the powerful tool that Hurley talks about. Putting the power in home computerscomes down to what so much comes down to at home: parents and other caring adults. No question it’s become harder to monitor our children’s digital lives. As devices become more portable and numerous — 3G phones, iPods, iPads, notebooks, netbooks — where kids do what they do is more varied and distant.

But at home the computercan be literally right under our noses. We can demand that homework comes before Facebook and explain why the world has to work that way. Ideally, what we teach at home will inform the choices our children make when they are carrying out their digital lives away from home.

No doubt it can be a tougher task in households that are struggling financially. Often with financial stress comes other stresses. But maybe the same nonprofits that are helping put computersin the hands of poor kids can also help their parents with strategies to help their kids use their new tools wisely.

If a kid knows how to use a home computerto get meaningful help with school, Hurley says, “then having help at his or her fingertips is clearly going to be a monstrous advantage for those with the tools.”

Yes, a big if. But in the end, the potential offered by getting this right is worth taking the chance we might get it wrong.

Contact Mike Cassidy at or 408-920-5536. Follow him at



Filed under Education Technology, Silicon Valley Business, Silicon Valley Life

2 responses to “More discouraging words on kids and computers

  1. Pingback: Computer games good but only in school « Watching the Water Cool

  2. I’m of the view that children should be exposed to computers but in an age appropriate environment where it is fun and educational

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