Does the internet make kids smarter? A July 28 report from a team of researchers at Michigan State University (MSU) contends that children who use the internet perform better on standardized tests and generally achieve higher grade-point averages than their less web-savvy peers.

The 16-month HomeNetToo project—funded with $1.5 million in National Science Foundation grant monies—surveyed 140 school-age children and 120 adults from predominantly low-income households and was intended to demonstrate how low-income families use the internet at home. In particular, researchers were interested in uncovering what motivates children to use the internet and how web use, in general, affects their lives.

“HomeNetToo children who spent more time online using the web performed better in school after one year than those who spent less time online,” said principal investigator Linda Jackson. “It appears that the text-based nature of most web pages is causing children to read more, resulting in improvements in grade-point averages and performance on standardized tests of reading achievement.”

According to researchers, children who participated in the program—which provided computers and internet access to 90 low-income families in the Lansing, Mich., area—saw their grade-point averages increase from 2.0 to 2.2 or higher and, in many cases, improved their scores on standardized reading assessments.

“Spending time online means spending time reading,” said Jackson, who also is a professor of psychology at the university. “When you’re on the web, you have to read a lot of text.”

Researchers say the children, who averaged 13 years of age, spent most of their time online conducting school-related research, or pursuing hobbies and other personal interests. Project team members provided technical support for participants and made home visits to help install the technology and observe its use.

Students who took part in the program said they benefited from their newfound access to computer technology.

“I thought that the HomeNetToo project was great because it gave me a chance to stay home more with my family instead of going to the library every day. Also, it gave me extra time to work on my computer skills,” said one child participant. “Overall, it was wonderful.”

“I think it’s cool to get kids to learn more about the internet,” reported another. The study also helps dispel the myth that children and adults who spend a great deal of time online are more apt to become social dropouts.

“We found no evidence that using the internet at home reduces social contacts or undermines communication with family or friends,” said Jackson. “Adult participants who used the internet more were no more likely to communicate less with family and friends, participate in social groups, become depressed, or experience hassles or stress [owing] to time conflicts than those who used it less, or not at all.”

Other questions addressed during the three-year project concerned the effects of visual interfaces on learning. The researchers examined how the design of web pages makes it easier or more difficult for users to understand and remember their content. The study focused on health-related information, and in particular on high blood pressure, which is a serious problem in the African-American community.

Working in conjunction with MSU’s Media Interface and Networking Design (MIND) Laboratory, Jackson and her band of researchers created interfaces adapted to users’ preferred mode of processing information. Experiments were used to examine whether learning information about high blood pressure is easier with user-adapted interfaces than with the standard “magazine-style” web page interface.

“Culturally adapted interfaces resulted in more favorable attitudes than the typical magazine-style interface,” said Frank Biocca, Ameritech professor of telecommunication at MSU and director of the MIND Lab. “Learning was enhanced when interface adaptation matched the users’ cognitive style.”

An additional 160 African-American adults were recruited at churches and community centers in Detroit to participate in the interface design experiments.

At least one educator said he wasn’t surprised by the study’s findings.

“I think the report quantifies what many of us have suspected anecdotally for some time,” said Rick Bauer, chief information officer at The Hill School in Pottstown, Pa. “The internet is the preferred medium for information for this digital generation.”

Links:

HomeNetToo project
http://www.homenettoo.org

Michigan State University
http://www.msu.edu

Media Interface and Networking Design laboratory
http://www.mindlab.msu.edu