WHEN Speaker Newt Gingrich spoke of buying laptop computers for needy Americans, critics promptly dismissed the idea as silly.

But it is not silly at all.It raises a question that doesn't seem to have occurred to those who brushed aside his suggestion as a case of offering cake to the starving: Just who are the needy? Who are the have-nots?

Most Americans over 30, rich or poor, have been left out of the digital world.

Children, on the other hand, use computers for everything from homework to games to dating. Plenty of adult Americans are computer-illiterate. Fewer and fewer 10-year-olds are. None are, if you count Nintendo and Sega - as I do.

Two forces are working at once. Parents feel obligated to prepare their children by buying them a home computer, just as my parents felt obligated to buy an encyclopedia.

This includes 30 percent of households with children and less than $30,000 of annual income. Children, meanwhile, find that computers are at that wonderful intersection of playing and learning and that they can take over and control the digital world without parental intervention. It can be their own medium, not someone else's.

Together, these two forces helped push the sales of PCs ahead of televisions for the first time last year.

The digital revolution, blind to wealth, has left many powerful people behind. And increasingly, nations too.

Consider two countries with roughly the same population, Germany and Mexico. More than half of all Germans are over 40. More than half of all Mexicans are under 20. Which country is in a position to benefit more from the digital revolution in a world where a computer will cost less than a bicycle by the year 2000?

As developing nations install new telecommunications systems, they'll leapfrog over first-world countries with older ones. Already, Thailand has a higher ratio of cellular telephones per capita than the United States.

Back in the United States, the average age of an Internet user is 23 and rapidly dropping. In the digital era, these people are the haves.

The have-nots - the digitally homeless, the truly needy - are the large number of older, middle-class Americans, often highly educated, who couldn't tell a CD-ROM from the World Wide Web.

If you are in this group, and if you have a child or a grandchild between, say, 10 and 15, ask him or her to help you get started. If you don't, borrow a child. This is probably the way you program your VCR, anyway.

That's how I do it. We have a lot to learn from the young.