Computers Help Children Learn Computer Skills, But What Else?

There’s a new working paper (summary here; PDF here) from Ofer Malamud and Cristian Pop-Eleches called “Home Computer Use and the Development of Human Capital.” As they point out, the “digital divide” (within countries and between them) can be vast, and a great deal of governmental (and non-governmental) resources are being spent to address it. (In the U.S., the authors write, “less than half of children with family incomes under $25,000 lived in a household with a computer, compared to 92 percent of those with family incomes over $100,000.”)

It is a logical assumption that the children with computer access have a huge advantage in gaining human capital, yes?

But the tricky part is untangling the cause and the effect. As we’ve written in the past, children who grow up in homes with a lot of books are likely to do better in school than kids from homes without books — but not necessarily because they spend all their time reading. The data suggest that kids from homes with lots of books simply have smarter parents.

Malamud and Pop-Eleches have found a good variable to exploit in asking a similar question about home computers; from their abstract (emphasis mine):

We collected survey data from households who participated in a unique government program in Romania which allocated vouchers for the purchase of a home computer to low-income children based on a simple ranking of family income. We show that children in households who received a voucher were substantially more likely to own and use a computer than their counterparts who did not receive a voucher. Our main results indicate that that home computer use has both positive and negative effects on the development of human capital. Children who won a voucher had significantly lower school grades in Math, English and Romanian but significantly higher scores in a test of computer skills and in self-reported measures of computer fluency. There is also evidence that winning a voucher increased cognitive ability, as measured by Raven’s Progressive Matrices. We do not find much evidence for an effect on non-cognitive outcomes. Finally, the presence of parental rules regarding computer use and homework appear to mitigate the effects of computer ownership, suggesting that parental monitoring and supervision may be important mediating factors.

So: having a computer at home helps kids develop computer skills. (Okay …) But it seems to lower their grades in math and reading.

There are a lot of lower-school educators out there who will read this with no surprise whatsoever. For all the talk about the digital divide, a lot of educators work hard to keep computers out of the classroom at an early age, to help kids develop skills without them. This is a topic we think about a lot in my home. We have a 9-year-old son who uses his computer for all kinds of stuff — games and sport fantasy leagues, yes, but also reading the news and looking up whatever his brain latches onto: volcanoes, Hitler, left-handed presidents, etc. He also happens to read a lot of books — but would he read more if there were no computer in the house? And would there be a great benefit in that? And will his computer literacy yield greater unforeseen benefits down the road?

I do find it interesting that a lot of parents I know urge their kids to get off the computer while looking down at their own Blackberrys.

(N.B.: Pop-Eleches is the same scholar whose fascinating research on abortion in Romania we wrote about in Freakonomics.)


As far as math skills are concerned, I believe it is essential to keep kids as far away from anything that can be used as a calculator as possible, computer included. If you want to understand what is going on when doing math doing the calculations in your head is very important. Or at least it was for me.

Jonathan Katz

Correct! Computers don't belong in schools, or for children at home. They are a distraction from real learning. Teaching soon-to-be obsolete computer skills takes time away from education (schools have computers so students can learn skills only useful on school computers, a solipsism). The internet is not the place to find serious information.

In everyday life (excluding scientific research, reservation systems, accounting, etc.) the only place for computers is to prepare letter-perfect documents. That is an adult job; children don't need to do it.


A computer is a tool. Unless the kids are being instructed in computer programming, then it should be treated as little more than a high tech typewriter or a ready source of reference material.

I am reminded of a Far Side cartoon that shows a mother and father looking hopefully at their young son and dreaming of a day when he is looking through the want ads at ads for experienced video game players.


About 30 years ago, I went into my bank with a $200. check. I wanted to cash the check, make a $100 deposit, buy a $50. money order and get the rest back in cash.

I ended up with $20 more than I should have. I told the teller I received the wrong amount.

The teller contradicted me. I explained in simple terms: I gave you a $200 check. I made a $100 deposit. That leaves $100 dollars. I bought a $50 money order. That leaves $50 dollars. I can't get back more than $50 dollars.

The teller entered the transactions into her adding machine again and told me I received the correct amount.

I said, I will keep the money if you want me to, but your drawer will be short. The platform manager overheard this and came over for an explanation. I explained I received $20 too much.
He looked at the teller. She pointed to the adding machine tape.

He told her to take her drawer, her machine, and her tapes to a back room. Not to count it out. Just take it all back as is. He asked me how much over I received. I said $20 dollars. I gave it to him. He thanked me.

Are we talking 3rd grade arithmetic? Yes but, there is more to it. The part that's missing. The part where the teller says, "Please excuse me, I have to notify the manager."

If children are not taught to handle the simple process of a third grade arithmetic problem, the computers won't help them do the math.


excerpted from thecleaversmiddleboy



I think one of the basic failings of 'computer skills' as taught in most schools is that the students are taught how to use an application or set of applications, and not what a computer actually *does*. Let me clarify: most schools teach "Microsoft Word" or "Adobe Photoshop"; they don't teach "Memory Structures" or "Storing and Retrieving Data".

And the difference between those two approaches -- and their outcomes for student learning -- is enormous. So although my own experience here is obviously anecdotal, it's something I've seen amongst colleagues as well. I learned how to 'use' a computer running BASIC and back in 1990/90 had a class in which we had to produce simple things like an address book that could search by first or last name, and a basic bitmap animation of a ship sailing around the screen. We weren't given a programme to do this for us, we had to write the whole thing from scratch. And it wasn't actually that hard because we were given time to explore.

Those programming skills lay dormant through much of the rest of high school and most of university, but they meant that when I started to need them again because I got involved in web work (mid-90s). Even though this was many years later and computers had changed (a *lot*) I knew that it should be possible to do what I wanted to do even if there's wasn't a handy button to do it all for me.

So by pure luck I acquired a very different mindset from the "But Word doesn't do that" approach which is taught to many youngsters today. Computer programming can teach students how to think logically, how to map out a problem efficiently, and how to make computers do what *they* want (offering a sense of empowerment even as it will quickly instil annoyance at how truly awful many applications are to use). Application teaching may teach some marginally relevant skills but they are far less likely to give students the power to acquire new computing skills or to think 'outside the box' when trying to get our increasingly powerful systems to do something truly original.

I'm all for keeping computers outside of the maths and language classrooms, and all for putting them *in* a proper computing course.


Mike B

Of course any family who really wants to develop computer skills will simply provide a box of PC parts and a Ubuntu install CD and inform the child to have at it.

Back in my day I had green text on an IMB PC and I was glad to have it!

Internet Reading Equality Alliance Division

"would he read more if there were no computer in the house?"

Just curious, but I wonder if the author considered the fact that the vast majority of the internet based information on volcanoes, Hitler, and left handed presidents that was latched onto by his son's brain were all processed by his son reading the written word. Granted, they were probably not presented in the same format as anything written by Hemmingway, Steinbeck, Carrol or Rowling, but the kid was reading the information just the same.

That's not to say that it might be more difficult to read something like Of Mice and Men or even Harry Potter after reading the more interesting (and terse) works from the internet. Now that there is more competition in the "reading material" marketplace (as opposed to just comics or The Hardy Boys), children might read works from the 20th century with the same contempt that we read Shakespeare or Beowulf. They might even be using the same "translation" skills that we did to get the information into a format our brain could understand, which could very well account for the correlation between high amounts of reading and high grades.

Either way, I believe that the monopoly of the printed book has long since given way to the electronic format, and that his concept of book-reading as being different from internet-reading is in many ways very "old-fashioned."



Both of my daughters (ages 5 and 8) are in advanced reading and math classes at their schools. Both received outstanding on EVERYTHING on their report cards at school. I allow both of them to use the computer for up to 2 hours everyday. We use parental controls and the websites are mostly educational. Computers can be wonderful, if parents know how to use them effectively.


Word processing software is good for kids because it makes transcription mistakes less of an issue, just like with an adult. I want kids to know how to edit and improve their work, which is hugely harder with cursive and typewriters.

Multiplication games make memorization easier. Yes, kids do have to memorize them, but there's no reason they should be bored the whole time. They're also good ways to understand the geometry that they're first encountering in 4th grade. (I really like starting early, they're also doing pre-algebra).

The Web means that kids can find answers about a million things, from ancient poetry to gecko care to current ideas about economics.

All of these need informed and attentive adult supervision, but it seems inappropriate to keep kids away from such a good tool for learning.

Brian S

I wonder how these results would look if controlled for houses with computers that also contained books vs. those that did not. I suspect that, in this case like any other, you'd find that what function the presence of a computer has once again is a reflection on the learning culture within the home. As previous commenters have noted, the computer is simply a tool.

Adrian B.

A little off the point, but "had significantly lower school grades in Math, English and Romanian "; heavens, a second language. Children in my school district don't have access to classes in a second language until high school, which is far too late.

Wonder if I can find a language tutor online....


My husband and I are both highly educated (multiple graduate professional degrees) and have and use computers at home. We don't, however, allow our children ( 3 and 8) to get on the computer for any reason. I don't see the point in having a child glued to yet another screen and television is severely rationed in our home. Needless to say, there are no game-boys , x-boxes etc. Young children should learn to interact with other human beings. They should also take these precious early years to learn to read well and widely and to enjoy the outside world (nature deficit...last child in the woods, etc.).

My child's preschool, with the best of intentions, made a big push to have a computer in every classroom. I am at the school a lot and see absolutely no benefit from having the laptop there but I definitely see the benefit of molding clay (fine motor skills); painting pictures; going on a dinosaur hunt and on and on.


Neil B

I'd agree that computers can be more a distraction than a necessity. Delving into the reasons I'd also wager that an earlier post is correct in noting that it's a misunderstanding of the computer itself (probably coupled with the fact that computers are a good source of computer games).

I'm an art director, and a lot of people assume I'm a 'computer guy'. I actually don't know very much about computers or software development, but hardware and software are necessary tools for my job and as such I endeavor to make the best I can of both.

Most computer education is focused on teaching the parts of the tool (ie. the menus), which is about as useful as teaching a woodworking course by focusing on how to build your own Dremel. It isn't the machines fault, it's simply that technology has a way of outpacing are ability to use it properly.


I can't afford to not let my 18 month year old son use the computer. Two weeks ago he hit a combination of keys that turned my screen 90 degrees, now until he fixes by whatever magic he used in the first place I have my computer on its side. So as you can see i need his random beating on the keyboard to turn it back.

John-Robert La Porta

There certainly is merit to all of this. I was fortunate enough to have access to a computer when I was 5 years old, the first one that my father bought. I was enthralled with it, and began to learn how to use and fix the machines, as well as many other skills that I now possess. Once the internet arrived, however, I began to spend more and more time with the machine, talking to people and wasting more and more time. I certainly learned a lot at first, but eventually it eroded into time that I could be doing other things. Eventually, I had to set limits on myself, or things would get out of hand. Now, it is amazing how much more time I have to do other things. Like anything else in life, it is all about balance. Parents should keep kid's exposure to a healthy level (just like TV, video games, etc), even if they fight it (which I most certainly did). Your children will be better for it, and will learn to not spend all of their time on one thing.


Joe in Jersey

Much is being made of computers taking away from reading and other skills. I do not see how a computer can erode your math skills unless you allow the child to be on the computer when they should be doing their homework. If a child is required to do their tasks before going on the computer, I do not see the difference between a computer and a book (as long as you make sure that your child is not just playing games all day long). Using your computer to do research is wonderful, and I believe a website to be no more or less trustworthy than a book. Everyone has their agenda, but a child being taught not to take everything they read (or see) at face value is an important lesson. There are books with outright lies in them as much as there are websites that do the same, the point seems to be that it is important to know what your child is doing and what is going on in their life.


If it promotes addiction to World of Warcraft...then its useless


Many of the people I know who make good money in computer programming and related fields did not have computers until they were in their teens. The requisite skills for engineering and technology work are not mouse-clicking and web-surfing, but problem-solving, logical thinking, and mathematics. If time spent on computer entertainment takes away from time spent building real-world problem-solving skills, then I think it makes sense for parents and teachers to limit (if not prohibit) children's access to computers.


@11 Adrian B.

The study was in Romania, so Romanian was not a second language being taught--it's just like English class is in the US.


Adrian (11), it was a Romanian government study, so they weren't assessing a foreign language program. But there are numerous language learning resources online. Among them are, which offers a free selection (in many languages) of contemporary video clips with simultaneous translation subtitles, pitch-adjusted slowdown, looping, word games and other features for aural/oral practice. A paid subscription at $10/month, less for a longer period, gives access to a much larger selection, searchable by category of content, and good for lots of exposure and practice. Carnegie-Mellon University's site is notable for its
modern-language-learning online resources. Here's the link to the French page:

-- Steve Norman, Burlington VT