By Roberto A. Ferdman There’s an interesting thing happening in countries where kids are the most comfortable with computers: they aren’t reading all that well. In fact, the more children use computers at school, the more their reading abilities seem to suffer. The chart below, from the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), shows the relationship between computer use at school and reading abilities in developed countries around the world, including the United States, Germany, China, Japan, Australia, and others. And it doesn’t bode well for those pushing for ceiling-less introductions of technology into classrooms. “Overall, the use of computers does not seem to confer a specific advantage in online reading,” the report says. “Even specific online reading skills do not benefit from high levels of computer use at school.” Nor does it seem to help print reading. The best readers, as it happens, tend to be those who use computers slightly less than average. From there upwards—in terms of how often kids browse, email, chat, and learn on computers—computer use only seems to hurt reading skills (notice how the line dips in the chart above for both digital and print reading). The negative relationship is particularly strong between the frequency with which students use computers to chat online and their reading abilities. But it’s also fairly pronounced for those who use computers to practice and drill. And all online activities—including browsing or emailing at school—seem to hurt students’ reading once they become more than once or twice weekly habits.
This chart shows how reading scores tend to fall off as computer use grows.
The reason why computers and Internet use seem to be having this adverse affect is likely fairly straightforward. There’s an opportunity cost associated with these varying activities: The time kids are spending getting acquainted with computers is time they aren’t spending honing their reading skills. It’s no coincidence that chatting online is the activity that seems to hurt students’ reading ability the most—nor is it that using email and browsing, both of which involve reading and processing longer texts, appear to be the least harmful.
But computers might also be killing more helpful paths of thought and discovery. “Students are cutting and pasting answers instead of finding them,” said Andreas Schleicher, who is the director of education at the OECD and lead author of the study.
Schleicher, who said the data should be very sobering, points to the fact that the highest performing education systems, like that in Singapore, are typically quite cautious about introducing technology as evidence that computers aren’t helping in the way many might argue.
“In most countries, the current use of technology is already past the point of optimal use in schools,” he said. “We’re at a point where computers are actually hurting learning.”
None of this is to say that computers aren’t helpful within a classroom. In most of the countries the OECD surveyed, occasional internet browsing is strongly associated with higher reading scores. What’s more, children who were the most capable of navigating online texts, which is becoming increasingly important to both academic and real world success, tended to browse the internet weekly. And there are outliers, too. In Australia, where students browse the Internet often, “more frequent browsing of the internet at school…is associated with gains in digital reading skills,” according to the OECD.
Still, the broader data seems to tell a fairly clear tale. Computers at school are good for reading, but maybe only up to a certain point, after which they might just be fancy vehicles for distraction.