Need some help navigating the Net? Your best consultant might be a kid. At school and at home, today’s children and teens are so computer savvy and comfortable online that they’ve become technology pacesetters, two new government studies show.

The studies, released Oct. 29, provide further proof of the important role schools play in closing the technology-access gap between children from low-income backgrounds and their more affluent peers. But the studies also point to the need for teachers and school leaders to incorporate computers and the internet more fully into students’ daily experiences.

About 90 percent of people ages 5 to 17 use computers, and 59 percent of them use the internet–rates that are, in both cases, higher than those of adults. Even kindergartners are becoming more plugged in: One out of four 5-year-olds uses the internet.

These figures come from a new Education Department analysis of computer and internet use by children and adolescents in 2001. A second report from the agency, based on 2002 data, shows 99 percent of public schools have internet access, up from 35 percent eight years ago.

“Children are often the first adopters of a lot of technology,” said John Bailey, who oversees educational technology for the department. “They grow up with it. They don’t have to adapt to it. … Students, by and large, are dominating the internet population.”

By the time they’re age 10, 60 percent of children use the internet. That number grows to almost 80 percent for kids who are 16.

“The dramatic increase in younger kids’ use of technology is not disconnected from what’s going on with their parents and their families,” said Peter Grunwald, whose California research firm tracks technology trends by annually surveying students and parents.

“Younger kids are likely to have younger parents, and it is those parents, especially mothers, who have a much higher comfort level with technology than older parents–or even younger parents of five years ago.”

A substantial number of children have or plan to have their own web sites, Grunwald said.

Like adults, young people are going online for a range of reasons, the government research shows. Almost three in four use the internet for help with school assignments, and more than half use it for writing eMail, sending instant messages, or playing games.

Girls, who not long ago used computers and the internet at lower rates than boys, have essentially eliminated that difference, the research shows. But there are other notable gaps.

Almost two-thirds of young white people use the internet, but less than half of black people ages 5 to 17 do, and slightly more than a third of Hispanic young people log on. Part of the reason is access–80 percent of black students use computers at school, for example, but only 41 percent do so at home, according to the 2001 report.

“We need to address the limited access to technology that many students have outside of school,” Education Secretary Rod Paige said. “There is much more we can do.”

From rural areas to the suburbs to cities, almost every public school is wired for the internet. Ninety-four percent of schools now connect using broadband, and schools now have one computer with internet access for every five students, the research shows. As a result, more children and teens use computers at school than at home.

However, young people are more likely to access the internet at home than at school–an indication, Bailey said, that many teachers are not yet comfortable enough with the online tool to incorporate it into class. That must be a target area for improvement, he said.

Schools are using the internet to keep parents updated about their kids’ performance and to improve student access to a range of textbooks, advanced courses, and test-preparation programs. Almost all schools say they take measures to block internet access to inappropriate web sites.

Beyond internet availability, basic computer access continues to shape classroom instruction.

At Waston Lane Elementary in Louisville, Ky., 5-year-olds spend 15 minutes a day on the computer, listening to stories and pronunciations of letters. They also practice computer skills by coloring the electronic way–clicking on colors to fill in shapes.

The report on computer and internet use by children and adolescents was based on September 2001 interviews conducted with members of about 56,000 households. The report about internet access in public schools was based on a fall 2002 survey to a representative sample of schools in the 50 states and the District of Columbia.

The release of the reports came the same day that the nonprofit NetDay and the communications company BellSouth Corp. invited tens of thousands of students to comment on how to improve technology in their schools. Ideas gathered online will be given to the Education Department with the goal of influencing the nation’s next educational technology plan.


“Computer and Internet Use by Children and Adolescents”

“Internet Access in U.S. Public Schools and Classrooms”

Net Day