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Journal Issue: Children and Computer Technology Volume 10 Number 2 Fall/Winter 2000

Who's Wired and Who's Not: Children's Access to and Use of Computer Technology
Henry Jay Becker

Summary

As computer technology becomes increasingly prevalent throughout society, concerns have been raised about an emerging “digital divide” between those children who are benefitting and those who are being left behind. This article presents results from new analyses of national survey data describing children's differential access to computers in school and at home, and the varying conditions that affect how children experience computers. For example, responses from a nationwide survey of teachers suggest that, as of 1998, more than 75% of students had access to computers at school. In fact, those teaching lower-income students reported weekly use of computers more often than those teaching higher-income students. But the nature of children's experiences using computers in school varied greatly by subject and teacher objectives, and the data suggest that lower-income students use computers more often for repetitive practice, whereas higher-income students use computers more often for more sophisticated, intellectually complex applications.

Differences between low-income and high-income children's access to home computers were far less subtle. Survey data indicate that only about 22% of children in families with annual incomes of less than $20,000 had access to a home computer, compared to 91% of those in families with annual incomes of more than $75,000. And among children with access, those in low-income families were reported to use the computer less than those in high-income families, perhaps because most low-income families with computers lacked a connection to the Internet. The two most predictive factors of children's use of home computers were the child's age and the computer's capabilities. The author concludes that home access to computers will be a continued area of inequality in American society, and that schools must play a critical role in ensuring equal opportunity for less-advantaged children to access the benefits of the more intellectually powerful uses of computer technology.