Emerging Digital Literacies of Children: Investigating Home Computing in Low- and Middle-Income Families

February 1, 2002

For several years now, the concept of a "digital divide" as unequal access to technology has driven much of the policymaking around low-income children's computing. In this study, we explore an alternative construction, the digital divide as a literacy issue.

Working with Computers for Youth, one of a handful of organizations that focuses on providing low-income students and their families with home computers and the skills and resources to use them, CCT undertook a one-year comparative study of children's use of computers in low- and middle-income homes.

We investigated what happens in the home because we've found that literacy skills may be taught in schools or libraries but they are practiced and fortified at home. In addition, the experience and knowledge children gain at home as they engage with videogames, handheld computers, email, instant messaging, and audio file sharing, may help them understand the grammar of digital media - a construct similar to the way early childhood experiences like drawing pictures, reading cereal boxes, telling stories, and writing notes are the foundations of print literacy.

We studied nine low-income urban children and ten middle-income suburban children ranging in educational achievement and ethnic diversity. All were in the seventh or eighth grade and had at least one Internet-connected computer in their home.

The low-income children each attended one of CFY's partner schools, in which all students and teachers had received a CFY home computer, training, ongoing technical support, email accounts, and tailored Web content. The middle-income children each attended one of two schools and had acquired their home computers on their own. CCT researchers made two to three home visits per family. Each visit lasted approximately two hours. The interviews were conducted between the months of November 2000 and July 2001.

We found that all the children in the study use their computer to do schoolwork. Many children with leisure time at home also spend two to three hours a day communicating with peers, playing games, and pursuing creative hobbies. When solving technical problems, the low-income children rely more on formal help providers such as CFY and schoolteachers, while the middle-income children rely more on themselves, their family, and peers. Overall, we found that all the children in the study developed basic literacy with word processing, email, and the Web. Those children who spent considerably more time online developed more robust skills in online communication and authoring.

We also found that local circumstances, such as technological, social and school environments, influenced children's home computing practices. Regarding the technological environment, we identified three elements that have an impact on how children use their home computer:

  • The length of time children had a computer at home. Middle-income children have more comfort and confidence in using their home computers because they have been present in their homes for a considerably longer time.
  • A family's ability to purchase stable Internet connectivity. Credit cards make it easy for middle-income families to purchase Internet access. Low-income families without credit cards need to find providers that accept other forms of payment, which CFY assists them in doing.
  • The number of computers in the home and where they are located. Low-income homes usually have only one computer located in a heavily trafficked area, such as the living room or kitchen. As a result, the children's activities are more likely to be shared with the family and supervised so as to encourage use of the computer for educational purposes. Middle-income homes, in contrast, often have more than one computer and children are more likely to use it alone in a private area such as a bedroom. As a result, there is less social interaction around the computer and children use them more for recreation rather than educational purposes.

We also identified five elements of children's social environment that shaped their computing:

  1. Parents' attitudes toward computer use. There is little difference in attitude between low- and middle-income communities. Most parents believe that home computer use can help their children succeed in school and they create rules that encourage their children to put homework before fun. In the low-income households, parents also perceived their CFY computers as keeping their children home and off dangerous streets.
  2. Parents' own experience and skills with computers. Middle-income parents who have developed extensive computer skills through their jobs and schooling are able to model rich and varied uses of the computer, and engage their children in critical talk about the Web. Many of the low-income parents, who had never before touched a computer, were less able to model computing practices for their children. Instead, they supported their children's computing by suggesting certain activities, many of which were cultural and brought family members together.
  3. Children's leisure time at home. The middle-income children have more leisure time at home and are able to develop more skills and use their computers for varied purposes. Besides homework these children also use the computer for fun and social interaction. In contrast, almost all of the low-income children in this study, because of their school's extended-day schedule, have very little leisure time (most of which is supervised) and use their computer primarily for schoolwork.
  4. The computing habits of children's peers. Children's online communication usually depends on what their peers are doing. The middle-income children primarily use Instant Messenger (IM), while the low-income children mostly use email. Low-income children, however, as they discover IMing, are using it more and introducing it to their peers. CFY's strategy of wiring an entire school community appears to leverage "peer culture" in helping children foster new communication skills.
  5. The technical expertise of friends, relatives, and neighbors. Middle-income families often have friends, relatives, or neighbors who have strong technology skills and can help them troubleshoot computer problems. Low-income families are less likely to know people with such skills and so turn to schoolteachers and to CFY for help. This finding demonstrates that organizations like CFY are greatly needed to provide crucial technical support to new users in low-income communities.

Finally, we identified two elements of the school environment that helped shape children's home computing:

  1. Homework assignments. In all the schools attended by our participating children, teachers help students develop digital literacy through homework assignments. For example, in the CFY partner schools, teachers assign homework requiring Internet research and give extra credit for typed reports. In the middle-income schools, teachers' assignments are similar except that high-track students often receive more in-depth and inquiry-based assignments (such as stock simulations and Web quests).
  2. The direct instruction teachers provide in the classroom. Children learn computer skills from instruction in their schools. For example, in the CFY partner schools, some teachers provided instruction on MS Word and on using the Internet, while in the middle-income schools, a library-media specialist offered group computer instruction on how to do an Internet search and then evaluate the information found.

Based on our findings, we believe that policymakers and private funders can do a number of things to support children's acquisition of digital literacy. They can:

  • Fund programs that provide low-income families with home computers and the skills to use them.
  • Encourage home computer programs to train parents, not just children, in "computer literacy."
  • Insist that home computer programs not only provide technical support to the communities they serve, but help them build their own troubleshooting strategies.
  • Help schools become aware of the large roles they play in children's computing.
  • Support schools in using computing tools to strengthen family-school connections.
  • Fund programs that help parents understand more about the ways they can keep their children safe online.
  • Support research and programs that can help families in low-income communities maintain consistent Internet connectivity.
  • Help replicate the CFY model of providing all students and teachers in a school with home computers and comprehensive services.
  • Fund additional research on the development of digital literacy among low-income children.
  • Fund additional research on understanding the intricate relationship among family income, social capital, and technology use in different social settings.


Harouna Ba
Kallen Tsikalas