Journal Issue: Children and Electronic Media Volume 18 Number 1 Spring 2008
Like their elders, America's youth have an almost dizzying assortment of entertainment technology from which to choose.1 Children and adolescents, however, are a special media audience, in part because they are developmentally vulnerable and in part because they are among the earliest adopters and heaviest users of entertainment technology.2 Adolescents in particular have widely adopted the use of digital media for daily life activities. Indeed, the stereotypical view of many Americans is that teenagers spend their lives immersed in electronic media. While adolescents are doing homework on the computer, with a word-processing program open for text, they are surfing the Internet. Simultaneously they are instant messaging with friends about events at school, about who likes whom, who “dissed” whom, or what a pain the homework assignment is. Meanwhile, television is on in the background, and they are listening to music on their iPods. At least some evidence confirms this picture, as Donald Roberts and Ulla Foehr describe in their article in this volume.
Though concerns about the influence of media and technology on American youth are many and varied, especially prominent are fears that they impair cognitive development and academic achievement. Critics of television have long blamed the medium for various ills, including declines in standardized test scores, mental inactivity, and reduced attention and concentration.3 Video games, computers, and the Internet have drawn similar charges.4
In this article, we examine empirical evidence regarding the links between television and other electronic media, on the one hand, and learning and cognitive development in children and adolescents, on the other. We review research findings, in turn, on achievement, language and symbol systems, visual and spatial skills, problem-solving skills, attention, and, finally, hypertext. Some areas have generated a fair amount of theory and research; others, very little. Interestingly, evidence that contradicts or supports existing assumptions has often had little effect on proclamations, policy, and punditry on this topic. Everyone, it seems, has an opinion about how electronic media influence children's learning. Our goal is to summarize what is known—and what is not—about how these media shape adolescents' cognitive development, as well as to identify those areas in urgent need of additional empirical research.