"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."
Point, click and read
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 standardized reading tests at the beginning of the study.
Jackson and her colleagues provided each family with a home computer and free Internet access. The researchers automatically and continuously recorded the children's Internet use, and participants completed periodic surveys and participated in home visits.
They found that children who used the Internet more had higher scores on standardized reading tests after six months, and higher grade point averages one year and 16 months after the start of the study than did children who used it less. More time spent reading, given the heavily text-based nature of Web pages, may account for the improvement. Jackson also suggests that there may be yet-undiscovered differences between reading online and reading offline that may make online reading particularly attractive to children and teenagers.
"What's unique about the Internet as compared with traditional ways of developing academic performance skills is that it's more of a fun environment," she says. "It's a play tool. You can learn without any pain. Beneficial academic outcomes may just be a coincidental effect of having a good time."
What's more, online reading may enhance skills that traditional book reading doesn't tap, says Donald Leu,PhD, the John and Maria Neag-Endowed Chair in Literacy and Technology at the University of Connecticut and director of the New Literacies Research Lab. He's found no substantial association between online reading comprehension performance and performance on state reading assessments, as described in a 2005 report submitted to the North Central Regional Educational Laboratory/Learning Point Associates (available online at www.newliteracies.uconn.edu/ncrel_files/FinalNCRELReport.pdf). That's because online reading takes different skills than traditional book reading, he says. Online reading relies heavily on information-location skills, including how to use search engines, as well as information-synthesis and critical...