Journal Issue: Children and Computer Technology Volume 10 Number 2 Fall/Winter 2000
Displacement of Other Activities
When children use home computers instead of watching television, it is generally viewed as positive; but when children use computers instead of participating in sports and social activities, it raises concerns about the possible effects on their physical and psychological well-being. Results from a national survey suggest that in 1999, children between ages 2 and 17 were spending approximately 1 hour 37 minutes per day using the computer and/or playing video games,1 about 24 minutes more than in 1998.6 Yet little research exists on how children's growing use of computers may be displacing activities other than television viewing, and the few findings that exist are ambiguous. Some evidence indicates that children who use home computers may watch less television than nonusers, but other evidence suggests that television viewing remains the same or might even increase with the use of home computers.
For instance, parents reported in a 1998 national survey by the Annenberg Public Policy Center that children in households without computers watched television an average of 36 minutes longer each day than children in homes with computers (2 hours 54 minutes versus 2 hours 18 minutes, on average). 7 Children in homes with computers also spent less time watching videotapes and more time doing schoolwork and reading magazines or newspapers, compared with children in homes without computers. Even after controlling for families' income and education levels, computer ownership had a significant, albeit weaker, effect—that is, in homes with computers, children spent less time watching television compared with children in families with similar income and education but without home computers. Interestingly, having a home computer did not affect the time spent reading books or playing video games on noncomputer platforms.
Other studies, such as a 1999 study by Nielsen Media Research, suggest that computer use does little to reduce television viewing. The data gathered by Nielsen showed almost no change in household television viewing after households gained Internet access.8 Indeed, many Americans report that they prefer to use computers and watch television simultaneously. A 1999 study of 10,000 U.S. households by Media Metrix, an Internet and digital media research firm, found that among households with a home computer, 49% used their computers and watched television at the same time.9
Still others suggest that, because of the growing trend to link the content of various media—as exemplified by the "tie-ins" between children's television shows, computer games, and Web sites—computer use may not displace television, but may instead lead to an increase in television viewing.10 (See the article by Montgomery in this journal issue for further discussion of the links between television and the Internet.)
Furthermore, it appears that greater access to home computers may actually be increasing children's total "screen time," that is, time spent using a computer, playing video games, and watching television combined. For example, parents reported in a 1999 survey that children between ages 2 and 17 with access to home computers and video games spent an average of 4 hours 48 minutes per day in front of a television screen or computer monitor. In contrast, parents reported that children without computers or video games spent an average of 3 hours 40 minutes per day in front of a screen, more than an hour less.1 Another national survey of children ages 2 to 18 found that total reported screen time averaged 4 hours 19 minutes per day, excluding use of the computer for schoolwork. Reported screen time varied greatly by age, however, ranging from 2 to 3 hours per day for ages 2 to 7, to nearly 6 hours per day for ages 8 to 13 (see Figure 1).11 As the combined amount of time children spend across these various media increases, the likelihood of displacing time spent on organized sports and other social activities also increases, thus exacerbating the impact on children's physical and social well-being.