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Poor kids in the developing world given laptops to help them make big educational leaps may wind up doing more household chores and reading less than children without the computers, according to a new study in Peru.
The study, which looked at a program that gave 1000 laptops to underprivileged primary school children in Lima, could temper enthusiasm for investments in laptop distribution as a path to better academic performance.
The working paper by the US-based National Bureau of Economic Research said children may do more chores because the laptops encourage them to spend more time at home - giving their parents more opportunities to nag them into washing clothes and cleaning up.
The group also said parents might be rewarding their children with time on their laptops in exchange for completing chores.
"The largest effects of computer use seem to be associated with playing computer games and, to some extent, with listening to music on the computer," wrote lead author Diether Beuermann.
While the authors found children spent more time on computers, improvements in their cognitive skills were "small and insignificant."
They did not offer an explanation for the reported decline in reading - which looked at the children's total daily reading both online and offline - but said it was consistent with other research.
The authors stressed that their findings were preliminary and the study was not designed to evaluate the One Laptop per Child project started by technology guru Nicholas Negroponte.
But the study used One Laptop per Child machines, and its findings seem to contradict the initiative's key assumptions and back critics who said it is not a magic wand.
"When every child has a connected laptop, they have in their hands the key to full development and participation. Limits are erased," says the website of the group, which now sells laptops to governments in developing countries for about $200 each.
The US-based One Laptop per Child initiative grew in part out of the Media Lab of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and has sold about 2.5 million laptops to more than a dozen countries since around 2007. The goal of the program was to develop laptops "inexpensive enough to give to every child in the world."
Previous research found that school children in rural Peru who received laptops as part an One Laptop per Child initiative did not perform any better on math and language standardised tests, though they did show improved cognitive skills - unlike the latest study.
The One Laptop Per Child organization has criticised those previous findings for focusing on short-term results, as opposed to long-term improvements the group still expects.
The organisation declined to specifically comment about the study from the NBER.
Many countries - Peru especially - have invested heavily in the program, though it has generated considerable debate among local education specialists about whether it is the best way to spend limited funds.
Peru, which puts less than 3 percent of gross domestic product toward education each year, has spent $200 million on about a million laptops for its nationwide program, the NBER study said.
The NBER study looked at the habits of 2,700 children. They compared pupils in 14 schools in Lima six months after they received the laptops with students in 14 schools that did not receive laptops.