Dot-com is killing Dewey Decimal, as more than 70 percent of teen-agers are using the Internet for homework or other school-related research, and almost one-half agreed in a survey that the new technology helps them a lot in completing assignments.
But 18 percent said they know of cases where teens have used the Internet to cheat on take-home papers or tests.
"It's helping the diligent be more diligent, and the lazy be more lazy," said Lee Rainie, director of the Pew Internet and American Life Project, which is tracking how the Internet is affecting American life.
Rainie said the Internet is evolving as a big modern research library for many children, almost all of whom now are wired to the Internet at home or at school.
Recent federal studies estimate that 98 percent of American public schools now have Internet access, although there are lower access levels in schools with higher concentrations of poverty. Congress in 1996 provided discounts ranging from 20 percent to 90 percent, depending on local poverty levels, for schools to buy Internet access.
Parents know the value of the Internet, and 28 percent of the 754 parents interviewed said they have used e-mail to communicate with their child's teachers. The Pew survey found 93 percent of parents believe the Internet helps students learn, and 55 percent say it's been a good thing for their children. Only 6 percent felt the Internet was a bad thing.
The study said that teen-agers are using the Internet most at home. Only 11 percent of the 754 youths between ages 12 and 17 interviewed said their primary Internet access was at school.
"It's a big thing after school. They get home and instant message their friends like mad," Rainie said.
He said Pew's survey shows that not that many children are using the Internet to look at pornography; 15 percent of teens admitted they had lied about their age to gain access to a site. Most adult sites now require surfers to state their age, and deny entrance to those under 18. But he said a significant number of teens interviewed during the survey reported they had received unwanted e-mails, or instant messages from pornographers. "Porn spam is a big problem," he said.
For most teens, the Internet is replacing the library, with 71 percent reporting they relied mostly on the Internet for their research, and 24 percent saying they relied mostly on library sources. Forty-one percent say they are using instant messaging to get help on their homework, contacting friends or their teachers. Close to half of girls said they use e-mail or instant messaging, compared to 36 percent of boys.
Schools also are setting up Web sites as part of class projects. About 58 percent of teens say they have used Web sites set up by their schools to help them with class work.
There are several sites that help students find information on projects they are researching, including the Fact Monster Homework Center at www.factmonster.com and Academic Assistance at www.tutoraid.org. Many sites offering students prewritten essays are charging for their papers, although some allow teachers to check their databases to see if the material submitted by students match the papers they have online.
The Pew survey also found that a number of parents are using the Internet as a home library. Sixteen percent of adult Internet users said they go online on a typical day to get an answer to a question, and 5 percent of those under 50 say they are taking a class online for college credit. Pew estimates this translates into about 1 percent of Internet users, or 1 million adults.