Are Children Smarter (or More Socialized) Because of the Internet?

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For most children and teenagers, using the Internet has joined watching television and talking on the phone in the repertoire of typical behavior. In fact, 87 percent of 12- to 17-year-olds are now online, according to a 2005 Pew Research Center report. That's a 24 percent increase over the previous four years, leading parents and policymakers to worry about the effect access to worlds of information--and misinformation--has on children. Psychologists are only beginning to answer that question, but a study led by Michigan State University psychologist Linda Jackson, PhD, showed that home Internet use improved standardized reading test scores. Other researchers have found that having the Internet at home encourages children to be more self-directed learners.

"We had the same question for television decades ago, but I think the Internet is more important than television because it's interactive," says Jackson. "It's 24/7 and it's ubiquitous in young people's lives."

The positive effects of Internet use appear especially pronounced among poor children, say researchers. Unfortunately, these children are also the least likely to have home computers, which some experts say may put them at a disadvantage.

"The interesting twist here is that the very children who are most likely to benefit from home Internet access are the ones least likely to have it," says Jackson. "It's a classic digital divide issue."

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In her research, published in a 2006 Developmental Psychology (Vol. 42, No. 3, pages 429-435) special section on Internet use, Jackson studied 140 urban children as part of HomeNetToo, a longitudinal field study designed to assess the effects of Internet use in low-income families. Most of the child participants were African American and around 13 years old; 75 percent lived in single-parent households with an average annual income of $15,000 or less. The children were also underperforming in school, scoring in the 30th percentile on...
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