One Laptop Per Child classroomIn a recent Slate article, “The $100 Distraction Device,” Ray Fisman writes about a study conducted in Romania in which lower-income families were offered vouchers for free PCs for their children. The goals, of course, were to get these kids studying harder and more efficiently. But the results show what you might suspect – that yeah, these kids watched less TV. But they also slept less and did less homework.

Guess what they were doing instead?

Every study I’ve seen about low-income kids, games, and computers suggests the same things. It’s parental guidance that makes all the difference, and the poorer a family is, the less likely that parents encourage their kids to develop good study habits and limit their access to games and other amusing Net stuff.

That’s not always true – I worked with several groups of poor Latino families in New York City Head Starts with moms who were adamant about giving their kids good study habits. They asked lots of questions about ways to improve their children’s reading readiness and were hungry for the answers. But there were lots of other families I knew I’d never see, without a clue about helping their kids do well in school. Fisman compares the kinds of parents who choose to buy their kids PCs vs. those parents who, as in this case, were given free-computer coupons randomly:

Parents who buy computers tend to place more value on education—they’re also more likely to live in good school districts, pay for extra math classes, and generally provide a richer learning environment for their kids than parents who don’t buy computers.

Fisman remembers how involved his parents were when he got a computer growing up. He describes them as “education-obsessed” – the kind of parents we commonly see in libraries serving striving immigrants and/or upper-middle-income families. But both parents in lots of poor families are working long hours and their kids are often free to do as they like:

… my parents stepped in to make sure Space Invaders didn’t crowd out homework. Where were Romania’s parents? The voucher program was specifically designed to help poor households, and their dire financial circumstances meant that these families were probably less able to afford after-school care or otherwise see to it that the computers were used for learning and not just recreation. Indeed, the authors found that when they looked specifically at families with stay-at-home moms who may be more present and able to police computer use, the negative effects of vouchers were greatly reduced.

When I worked in New York City public libraries, almost all the kids competing for slots at the PCs were non-white and/or non-Anglo. In Austin, it’s the same. I’m willing to bet – although I’ve never been so crass as to ask – that their families are poor. The better-off kids can go home and have a fast Net connection waiting for them. Lots of the poorer kids must come to the library for one.

It’s not an easy job, but we folks in libraries serving lower-income families need to do what we can, when we can, to help parents and kids see the importance of holding off on the Mario Kart or the Nickelodeon Web site until after the homework’s done. And I’m hoping that the countries in the developing world that are providing the One Laptop Per Child computers to families with subsistence incomes are also training the parents to keep those games switched off until the homework’s done.