Home Computers and Human Capital
Providing home computers to low-income children in Romania lowered academic achievement even while it improved their computer skills and cognitive ability.
Several nations -- including Brazil, Uruguay, Peru, and Colombia -- have used subsidized programs to get personal computers into poor households. Governments have promulgated such programs despite little credible evidence that the technology improves children's academic performance or their behavior. Euro 200, a program administered by the Romanian Ministry of Education, gave out approximately 35,000 vouchers toward the purchase of a home computer in 2008.
The Euro 200 program met with mixed results, according to NBER researchers Ofer Malamud and Cristian Pop-Eleches. The voucher program boosted the likelihood of households owning a home computer by more than 50 percentage points and led to increased computer use. On one hand, children in families that received a voucher scored significantly higher on tests of computer skills and cognitive ability than their counterparts without a voucher. On the other hand, children in families that received a voucher had significantly lower school grades in math, English, and Romanian than their counterparts without vouchers. The authors conclude that "providing home computers to low-income children in Romania lowered academic achievement even while it improved their computer skills and cognitive ability."
In Home Computer Use and the Development of Human Capital (NBER Working Paper No. 15814), the authors include some evidence that winning a computer voucher also reduced the time spent doing homework, watching TV, and reading. "These results may not be so surprising given that few parents or children report having educational software installed on their computer, and few children report using the computer for homework or other educational purposes," the authors write. "Instead, most computers had games installed and children reported that most of the computer time was spent playing games."
The study focused on students about one year after their families would have gotten their computer. However, the authors also look at a smaller sample of households (647 versus 3,354 in the main study) who participated in the same Euro 200 program four years earlier. They find that these families had significantly higher levels of computer ownership than non-voucher families, too. In light of the small numbers in this second sample, "we do not wish to draw any strong conclusions," the authors write. "Nevertheless, taken as a whole, these results are consistent with the persistence of long-term negative effects on academic achievement, and positive long-term effects on cognitive ability and computer skills."
Parental rules can help ameliorate some of the negative effects of a computer in the home the study finds, especially if they target the right activity. For example, the authors find that if parents have a rule limiting computer use, it tends to reduce the benefits of increased computer skills without boosting grades. By contrast, if they have a rule enforcing homework time, it tends to ameliorate the computer's negative effect on grades without diminishing the benefits of increased computer skills and cognitive ability.
-- Laurent Belsie