Kids’ computer use can be great equalizer or divider, study reveals

A UAB professor says access to computers propels students ahead of those who don’t use them.

icac_image_groupofgirls_siteA child who uses a computer regularly has a better chance of excelling in the workforce as an adult than a child who doesn’t, according to a University of Alabama at Birmingham study.

Shelia Cotten, Ph.D., associate professor of sociology in the UAB College of Arts & Sciences, says exposure to computers may give young people the technological attitudes and skills they need to do well in this technology-driven society in the June issue of Information, Communication & Society.

“If you do not have the computer skills to find information you need, for homework or otherwise, then you will be greatly disadvantaged in our information-based society,” Cotten said.

“From a policy perspective, our findings are consistent with calls for better integration of computers into the curriculum,” Cotten said. “It is our hope that our work will inform future one-to-one computing initiatives in other urban school districts so that these initiatives will succeed in decreasing digital inequalities.”

Cotten and a team of researchers surveyed 1,202 fourth- and fifth-graders in the Birmingham City School System who participated in the nation’s largest distribution of XO laptop computers during the 2008-09 academic year. The XO laptop is a child-friendly computer system created by the One Laptop Per Child organization, which typically provides computers to disadvantaged youth in third-world countries.

Students were surveyed before and after they received the laptops. They were measured on their computer anxiety, ability, use and ownership. The data showed that students who used a computer to do homework before receiving the XO tended to make greater use of the laptop and felt it helped them in their education. They were also more comfortable integrating technology in their daily work, a skillset that is important in the workforce, Cotten says.

Conversely, students who did not have access to computers prior to the XO distribution used their laptops less.

Students who are familiar with computers had a better attitude and aptitude for technology, the study concluded, and this underscores the importance of ensuring young children have access to computers, Cotten said, particularly among those for which it is historically lowest.