Economics Thesis Spotlight: Marybeth Nemecek ’21

Nemecek's research explores the impact of technology use on the cognitive and noncognitive skills of elementary school students.

Marybeth standing
Marybeth Nemecek ’21

Name: Marybeth Nemecek ’21

Major: Economic Consulting

Faculty mentor: Katy Rouse, associate professor of economics

Title of research:

The Impact of Technology Use on Cognitive and Noncognitive Skills of Elementary School Students


Since the beginning of the 21st century, technology use in homes and schools has increased exponentially. Further, current events of the COVID-19 crisis have led to longer and more frequent exposure to technology by children for both education and recreation. This increased reliance on technology could have lasting implications on the development of children’s cognitive and non-cognitive skills and on achievement disparities in the United States.

On one hand, exposure to the internet and other forms of technology may increase children’s eagerness to learn and act as an investment in human capital. On the other hand, technology use may increase the potential for distraction, leading to non-productive time use.

Despite the rapid growth in technological innovation, the literature on technology use and cognitive skills remains inconclusive and little is known about non-cognitive impacts. Understanding the role of technology on children’s skill formation is crucial given the well-documented importance of childhood skills on later life outcomes. Moreover, research suggests technology has created what is known as a digital divide, furthering inequality for those who do not have access to such resources.

Using data from the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study Kindergarten class of 2010-2011 (ECLS-K:2011), this study incorporates fixed effects methods to recover plausible causal estimates of technology. Further, Census Bureau data from the 5-year 2016 American Community Survey is used as an instrument for home computer use to control for reverse causality.  I also estimate the results by racial and income subgroups to determine whether or not there is evidence of a digital divide.

The findings suggest that technology use in both school and at home has the potential to increase test scores. Home use is also found to positively affect non-cognitive skills, but results suggest more frequent use at school negatively impacts non-cognitive outcomes. These effects are exacerbated for lower income individuals, indicating that a lack of access to technology or broadband service is more likely to disadvantage both cognitive and non-cognitive development of low-income elementary school children.

In other words:

How does the use of technology for either productive or non-productive means impact the development of human capital outcomes in children? Do these outcomes suggest a digital divide, or a gap between those that have access to the technology and those who do not, where future earnings potential of children may be hindered or helped due to the impacts of technology on their development of cognitive and non-cognitive skills?

Explanation of study/potential impact of findings:

This study seeks to find a more conclusive understanding of the impact technology has on children and their human capital development. Findings suggest the intended use of the technology, for productive or non-productive means, matters in determining the outcomes. The location of use, whether at home or at school, also suggests differences in outcomes. The outcomes differ by income subgroups, demonstrating that lower income individuals are more disadvantaged by a digital divide.

These differences in outcomes among subgroups are timely in recognizing the importance of providing equal access across income levels. The likely long-term shifts from the COVID-19 pandemic, that emphasize educational technology use at even higher rates than before, has the potential to greatly impact the investment in human capital the children of today are able to make. Consequently, the future earnings of younger generations, and the corresponding GDP potential of our country, are dependent on providing equal access to these resources.

Why did you pick this topic?

I’ve always been passionate about my individual learning and had interests across a variety of fields and subject areas. During my time at Elon, I recognized how lucky I am to have received a quality education throughout my life and became more aware of the resources, including technology, that helped me to succeed. I realized that I was privileged in this regard. Not everyone has the same access to opportunities and resources.

My economic classes helped me question this inequality and better recognize the potential impact it can have. I explored my curiosity in this subject throughout several smaller research projects in classes, where I investigated the role of technology or social media on outcomes related to those specific class themes. When it came time to think about research, I knew I wanted to continue exploring outcomes from technology use. It was only fitting that this topic enabled me to combine my love of economics and my passion for education to answer a timely question that will help provide policy implications to address social and educational inequality.

How has your mentor impacted you and your research process?

My mentor has provided me with endless support throughout this process. Dr. Rouse has guided me on the best path to answering these important questions and helped me think through the analysis and implications along the way. Throughout this two year project, I learned how to work with large datasets, how to adapt when the process does not always go as planned, and the balance of when to seek help and utilize connections. Dr. Rouse helped me develop these skills and has continuously shared invaluable advice from her own experiences which will help me to succeed in my professional career after graduation.

After graduating with a degree in economic consulting, Marybeth Nemecek joins FTI Consulting as a health solutions consultant. While at Elon, the Honors Fellow served as the president of Omicron Delta Epsilon international economics honor society and as a member of the Love School of Business’ economic consulting major advisory board. She presented her senior thesis at the 2021 Eastern Economic Association conference and Elon’s Spring Undergraduate Research Forum.