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Diverse digital skills, high-speed internet affect academic success, researcher finds

Release Date: October 12, 2022

Hotelling Lecture speaker Keith N. Hampton at Tuesday night's event.
LTU photo / Matt Roush

SOUTHFIELD--Parents of high schoolers, don’t worry so much if your kids seem to spend an awful lot of time online, playing video games or chatting with friends on social media.

A Michigan State University researcher told an audience at Lawrence Technological University Tuesday night that his study shows that while really excessive time online has a slight negative effect, the digital skills those kids are picking up translate into better grades and standardized test scores.

“The key is diverse digital activity, developing internet skills and social media skills.” Keith N. Hampton, professor of media and information at MSU, said in the annual Harold Hotelling Memorial Lecture at LTU.

What really matters, Hampton said, is access to fast internet at home. Lack of internet access, slow internet access, or access by cell phone only were all associated with lower digital skills--and worse performance in school.

Hampton’s study involved 3,258 students in 15 mostly rural Michigan school districts, whose test scores and GPAs were compared to their level of broadband access and online activities.

And rural broadband access isn’t all that it's cracked up to be. Hampton said FCC figures are far too trusting of giant broadband companies' statements about their service areas. When those service claims were carefully checked in Michigan, Hampton said, there turned out to be huge gaps in broadband access in rural areas. He said the FCC estimates that 1 million of Michigan's 10 million residents have no or limited access to broadband. In truth, he said, it’s more like 5 million--half the state's population! As evidence, he showed maps of Ottawa County west of Grand Rapids, with the FCC map showing wide coverage, and a map developed by state agencies showing far less coverage. If providers “even said they could serve an area, that area was considered served with broadband,” Hampton said.

The study was funded by Ann Arbor-based Merit Network Inc., the nation’s oldest internet service provider established in 1966 by Michigan universities; the MSU Quello Center for Telecommunication Management and Law; the MSU Institute for Public Policy and Social Research; and the National Science Foundation.

One warning Hampton had is for parents with very restrictive online access policies for their teens. “Adolescents whose parents use more restrictive media parenting practices have substantively lower self-esteem,” Hampton said. “And the magnitude is very, very large. Even larger than gender or lower GPA. Disconnection may be especially harmful in rural areas due to existing inequalities in education and lower overall well-being.”

Hampton said media have long been the scapegoat for social problems. He pointed to an alarmist quote about “a kind of screen” entering American homes full of misinformation and propaganda—from 1909, referring to newspapers.

Hampton said his research was based on his 1990s graduate school days at the University of Toronto, where a Canadian subdivision called Netville was a very early adopter of high speed internet—but half the homes in the subdivision, for one reason or another, weren’t hooked up. He founded the wired group was not isolated, but instead knew more of their neighbors and talked to them more often in person and on the phone.

Hampton said the pandemic led to a surge in broadband access, which plateaued at 68 percent in households in 2012 until the pandemic, up to 80 percent today. Huge subsidies from Congress have helped boost access, he said.

And in any event, digital skills are less of a predictor of academic success than traditional inequalities like race, income, and having parents with a college degree. And in rural areas, Hampton said, participation in school sports is actually a higher predictor—which he said is no wonder, given the emphasis rural communities place on high school sports, and the way teachers, counselors, and the community emphasize sports.

While the study found digital skills led to more interest in STEM careers, there were still differences between the genders. Boys intended to go into design-related STEM fields like engineering and computer science, while girls intended to go into more social-oriented STEM fields like healthcare, education, and social sciences.

For a complete recording of Hampton’s presentation, visit the LTU YouTube page at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=W4MeFXac7A4.

The Harold Hotelling Memorial Lecture Series was founded to honor an esteemed scholar and colleague. Harold Hotelling (1945–2009) joined Lawrence Tech as an associate professor of economics in 1989 and taught courses in business law, business ethics, constitutional law, urban social issues, and law and economics. His life was marked by an unwavering dedication to his family, his church, his students, and his profession. Everyone who knew him benefited from his keen intellect, tireless devotion, quick wit, and wonderful sense of humor. Hotelling’s contributions to Lawrence Tech will always be remembered, but more importantly, he will be remembered as a great person and a dear friend.

Lawrence Technological University, www.ltu.edu, is one of only 13 private, technological, doctoral universities in the United States. Located in Southfield, Mich., LTU was founded in 1932, and offers more than 100 programs through its Colleges of Architecture and Design, Arts and Sciences, Business and Information Technology, and Engineering. PayScale lists Lawrence Tech among the nation’s top 11 percent of universities for alumni salaries. The Wall Street Journal ranks LTU among the nation’s top 10 percent. U.S. News and World Report lists it in the top tier of best in the Midwest colleges. Students benefit from small class sizes and a real-world, hands-on, theory and practice education with an emphasis on leadership. Activities on Lawrence Tech’s 107-acre campus include more than 60 student organizations and NAIA varsity sports.


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