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The Harvard Family Research Project separated from the Harvard Graduate School of Education to become the Global Family Research Project as of January 1, 2017. It is no longer affiliated with Harvard University.

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About Family Involvement Research Digests

Harvard Family Research Project's (HFRP) Family Involvement Research Digests summarize research written and published by non-HFRP authors and/or written by HFRP authors but published by organizations other than HFRP.  To access the full research paper summarized in this digest, please see the citation below. For help citing this article, click here.


During adolescence, many young people distance themselves from their parents. At the same time, studies find that interest and engagement in school decline (Gottfried, Fleming and Gottfried, 2001; Steinberg, Brown, and Dornbusch, 1996), and some also find that academic performance declines (Wigfield, Eccles, and Pintrich, 1996; Herszenhorn, 2006). While some psychological distancing from parents may be necessary for young people to develop their own identities, it is important that parents remain involved in adolescents’ learning and schooling.

What are effective ways to keep parents involved in their adolescents’ learning while honoring the needs of young people to demonstrate greater independence and autonomy? Based on several years of research with low-income adolescents and their families, Computers for Youth (CFY) has learned that family computing (see box) can be a powerful way to connect adolescents with their parents around learning and to sustain their engagement with school (Tsikalas, 2005; Tsikalas and Huerta, 2006).

Family computing offers many potential benefits, both for youth and for their families. Adolescents use the Internet and computing as a means to increase their interest in schoolwork and to improve their understanding of challenging concepts (Levin and Arafeh, 2002; Tsikalas, Lee, and Newkirk, 2007). When adolescents become more engaged in their schoolwork, they want to share their enthusiasm and are more likely to extend invitations to their parents to participate in learning activities. Such invitations are one of the most important factors in parents’ decisions to become involved in children’s homework and learning (Hoover-Dempsey, Battiato, Walker, Reed, DeJong, and Jones, 2001). In addition, young people are often the technology innovators in their homes (Lenhart, Madden, and Hitlin, 2005), and family computing provides them with opportunities not only to demonstrate expertise but also to perform valuable services for their families. 

CFY’s overarching strategy is to use family computing to promote learning. CFY defines family computing as the use of home computing resources (hardware, software, and the Internet) by children and adults within a family to improve family relationships, enhance opportunities and strategies for learning, support children’s academic success and extracurricular interests, and create connections and knowledge that facilitate increased economic stability for the family.

Computers for Youth

Computers for Youth (CFY) is a national, nonprofit organization dedicated to improving the home learning environment of low-income middle school children. It provides low-income families with a computer-based home learning center, including a suite of highly engaging educational software, and training on how to use the computer to enhance learning and positive family interactions around learning. CFY is funded by generous individuals, public and private foundations, corporations’ cash and in-kind support (usually computer donations), and a small number of revenue-generating programs. Families are not charged to participate in the program.

Examples of family computing within CFY’s program include children using the computer with parents to research and complete projects for school and for personal development, children and parents using computer programs to learn English together, parents asking children to tutor their siblings using computer software and websites, parents asking children to do Internet research to inform family decisions, children and parents discussing things they learned on the Internet, children and parents playing learning games together on the computer, and parents visiting the website of their child’s school.

The Study

This research digest describes findings from Year 1 of a 3-year study about middle school students’ home computing and its relation to (a) family involvement in learning, (b) academic engagement, and (c) math achievement as measured by standardized test scores. The digest also provides recommendations for practitioners about how to promote family computing.

This research was conducted with 174 sixth- and seventh-grade students who participated in CFY’s program during the 2005–2006 academic year. Students attended five public middle schools in New York City (NYC). Eighty-nine percent of students were eligible for free or reduced-priced lunches; 70% were Latino and 29% were African-American; 43% were female.  Prior to CFY’s intervention, a majority of students scored below grade level on standardized tests of math and reading.

These students participated in school-based CFY programs. All incoming students enrolled in CFY partner schools are invited to participate in CFY’s program and to receive a computer-based home learning center. To become a partner school, public middle schools submit an application and demonstrate that 75% or more of their students qualify for free or reduced-price lunches, that the school has a commitment to involving families in children’s learning; and that the school has a vision for using technology as a tool to empower students as learners. 

Participating CFY students attend a family learning workshop with at least one adult from their family. At this workshop, children and adults are taught by CFY Master Teachers how to set up their computer and use its software to support learning.  At the close of the workshop, they take home their CFY computer-based home learning center, which consists of

  • A high-quality, refurbished desktop computer
  • Engaging educational software in math, science, social studies and reading/writing
  • StarOffice (a suite of programs similar to Microsoft Office)
  • Internet access provided at a reduced rate (8 hours free and then $9.95/month)

In a survey completed at the end of the school year, students reported on their system use, use of home computers for self-regulated learning, family computing, perceived impacts of computing, and engagement with school. Data on demographics and standardized test scores were acquired from the NYC Department of Education for each student for the year prior to (2005) and following (2006) the CFY intervention.  

Key Findings

Students used their home computers regularly. Nearly 90% of students indicated that their home computer was working at the time of the survey (n = 151).  Of these students, 78% said they used the computer at least a few days a week, and 59% said the same about home Internet use. Thirty percent never used the Internet at home. (Generally, students who did not use the Internet at home did not have Internet access at home.) There were no significant differences in computer use based on gender or prior performance levels in reading and math.

Students participated in family computing activities and conversations.  Nearly half of participants said they used their home computer to help others in their family, and over half reported that their parents praised them for their computer accomplishments. These findings were based on CFY’s index of family computing, which consisted of eight self-report items, including helping family members by using the computer and talking with their families about things they did on the computer or Internet. 

Family computing strongly predicted adolescents’ engagement with school. Greater family computing was positively associated with greater academic engagement (measured by the eight-item self-report scale). For students with working home computers, family computing was the most sizeable and significant predictor of students’ academic engagement in our analyses. This factor, along with the number of different software programs used at least a few times a week, explained 35% of the variance in student engagement. Prior math test scores did not predict engagement.

Students’ engagement significantly predicted their math test scores. The positive and significant predictors of math scores were a) the prior year’s math test score, b) frequency of home Internet use, c) engagement with school, and d) use of computers for self-regulated learning.  Together, all factors explained 48% of the variance in math scores. Over and above the prior year’s math scores, 14% of variance in math scores was explained by students’ engagement, system use, and home computing practices.


Our study finds that family computing is significantly associated with students’ academic engagement and family involvement in learning during the adolescent years, a time when both tend to decline. Educators and practitioners can promote family computing by using some of the following strategies, which have emerged from CFY’s research:

  • Providing parents and adolescents with links to engaging websites, especially those involving learning games or fun assessments of learning styles, personality types, and so on.
  • Providing parents with specific computing activities, which CFY calls “Family Together Time Activities,” that catalyze conversations about learning and motivation.
  • Encouraging parents to ask their adolescents to teach them or other family members something using the computer or Internet. Examples include showing a grandmother how to find information using a search engine, tutoring a younger sibling in reading using educational software or websites, and using language translation websites and text-to-speech readers to help a relative to improve their spoken English.
  • Offering parents examples of fun or creative computing challenges that they can turn into family rituals. For example, one CFY parent invited her daughters to learn something interesting on the Internet every day and share what they learned with the whole family each evening.
  • Providing families with complex and engaging software, such as the simulation games Real Lives, ZooVet™ or Rollercoaster Tycoon™, that encourages creative problem solving and communication and accommodates learners of many levels.

Next Steps

CFY is currently analyzing data from Year 2 of this study and collecting data for Year 3. For both years, presurvey data has been or will be collected. This data will allow us to examine changes in engagement, family computing and family involvement as well as changes in test scores. Additionally, in Year 3, our research sample includes students enrolled in comparison schools that are similar to CFY partner schools but not part of the program. The inclusion of these cases will allow us to investigate impacts related specifically to CFY’s program. A report on findings from 2006–2007 is expected by August 2008.


Gottfried, A. E., Fleming, J. S., & Gottfried, A.W. (2001). Continuity of academic intrinsic motivation from childhood through late adolescence: A longitudinal study. Journal of Educational Psychology, 93, 3–13.

Herszenhorn, D. M. (2006, September 22). English Scores Drop Sharply In 6th Grade. The New York Times, p. A1(L). Retrieved November 14, 2006, from InfoTrac OneFile via Thomson Gale.

Hoover-Dempsey, K. V., Battiato, A. C., Walker, J. M. T., Reed, R. P., DeJong, J. M., & Jones, K. P. (2001). Parental involvement in homework. Educational Psychologist, 36(3), 195–209.

Lenhart, A., Madden, M., & Hitlin, P. (2005). Teens and technology: Youth are leading the transition to a fully wired and mobile nation. Washington, DC: A Pew Research Center Project. Retrieved August 21, 2007, from

Levin, D., & Arafeh, S. (2002). The digital disconnect: The widening gap between Internet-savvy students and their schools. Washington, DC: A Pew Research Center Project. Retrieved August 21, 2007, from

Steinberg, L., Brown, B.B., & Dornbusch, S. M. (1996). Beyond the classroom: Why school reform has failed and what parents need to do. New York: Simon and Schuster.

Tsikalas, K. E. (2005, April). Can home computers help low-income families better support middle school students in school? Paper presented at the Annual Meeting of the American Educational Research Association, Montreal, Quebec, Canada.

Tsikalas, K. E., & Huerta, R. (2006, March). Bridging the home to school digital divide: Applying findings from five years of research on the effects of a home computing program.  Paper presented at the Consortium for School Networking (CoSN) Conference, Washington, DC.

Tsikalas, K. E., Lee, J., & Newkirk, C. (2007, June). Home computing, student engagement and academic achievement. Paper presented at the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO) National Conference on Large Scale Assessment, Nashville, TN.

Wigfield, A., Eccles, J. S., & Pintrich, P. R. (1996). Development between the ages of 11 and 25.  In D. Berliner & R. Calfee (Eds.), Handbook of Educational Psychology (pp. 148–185).  New York: Simon and Schuster MacMillan.


Summarized from  Tsikalas, K. E., Lee, J., & Newkirk, C. (2007, June).Home computing, student engagement and academic achievement. Paper presented at the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO) National Conference on Large Scale Assessment, Nashville, TN.

Kallen Tsikalas
National Director of Research and Learning Services
Computers for Youth
322 8th Avenue, Floor 12A
New York, NY 10001

Christine Newkirk
Research and Program Associate
Computers for Youth
322 8th Avenue, Floor 12A
New York, NY 10001


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