Thursday, July 01, 2010

Children With Home Computers Likely to Have Lower Test Scores

Children With Home Computers Likely to Have Lower Test Scores

The title of the above article is completely misleading and false, so ignore it. A better title might have been "Access to Computers Not a Cure-All; May Even Cause Harm."

The findings of the study are interesting: children from disadvantaged homes who gained access to computers performed measurably worse on end-of-state testing than children from disadvantaged homes who had no computers.

Not only is access to technology not a panacea, it actually exacerbates the educational disadvantage. The researchers were appropriately modest in their conclusions--"In disadvantaged households, parents are less likely to monitor children's computer use and guide children in using computers for educational purposes"--but I think one could reasonably draw several stronger inferences from the study.

1. Parents matter most. Again and again, failed educational reforms and scientific studies have shown that parental involvement is the one factor that can never be ruled out. Any educational reform (I would even expand this and say any reform, because I'm an ethicist and we like to sensationalize like that) that doesn't involve strengthening the family will probably fail.

2. Parenting well requires setting limits. Presumably, the children in the disadvantaged households used the computers as they saw fit. They were wrong. Children do not have infallible instincts for what they need, what is good for them, what will bring them safely to adulthood. Children need parents who guide them not only through positive modeling and suggestions but also through limit-setting. Saying yes to what's good is vital, and parents do well to phrase things as positively as possible. ("Oh, sure, you can play that game--just as soon as your homework is done." "Umm . . . let's find a more appropriate show to watch." "Well, let's make a date for you to play x-box with your friends on Saturday instead of today.") But saying no to what's bad is just as vital. ("You must never, ever surf the internet when I'm not at home.")

3. Technology is rarely the answer. Technology cannot fix injustice, historical or actual; it cannot redress wrongs; it cannot make us more moral people. If we are not already the kind of people who will raise our children conscientiously, who are intellectually curious, who have self-discipline, who are generous with the needy, who will pay a just wage, technological advances will at best fail to alleviate--and will sometimes positively exaggerate--our social failings.

4. This particular piece of technology--computers--comes pre-programmed, as it were, with a tendency toward harm. The irony is too delicious not to enjoy: information technologies tend to make us less intelligent. Absent some sort of external, imposed structure (a parent's insistence that we finish our homework first, a determination to balance our checkbooks by hand anyway, a conviction that "some things just shouldn't be blogged"), we are worse off with computers than without. It behooves us, then, to develop and pursue practices of restraint with regard to their use and proliferation.