Journal Issue: Children and Computer Technology Volume 10 Number 2 Fall/Winter 2000
Conclusions, Policy Implications, and Future Research Needs
Children's daily use of computers is increasing both at school and at home. Although children still spend more time watching television than using computers, use of home computers is growing rapidly, adding to their total "screen time." And although boys traditionally have used home computers more than girls, mostly to play games, girls are catching up as they use Internet communication activities to send and receive e-mail, play with software such as Barbie Fashion Designer, and care for computer-simulated virtual pets. Thus, both boys and girls will increasingly face the issues identified in this article, but a great deal is still unknown.
The strongest evidence examining how home computer use affects children builds on the studies of television concerning physical effects and violent content. The evidence on physical effects links the sedentary nature of computer use to an increased risk of obesity. Children should limit their time with media and should be taught to use computers safely to avoid the types of eye, back, and wrist injuries that have plagued adult computer users. In addition, the evidence on violent content links exposure to violent computer games to increased aggressive behavior. Stronger actions are needed on the part of policymakers and software developers to reevaluate the content of games targeted to children, to help parents choose appropriate games for their children, and to monitor violent content on the Web.
For the most part, however, research in this field is still in its infancy, and most of the findings in this article are only suggestive. There is a pressing need for more systematic research across the broad range of topics discussed to better understand the effects of computer use on children's physical, intellectual, and social development. The following are some of the most pressing of these research issues.
First, most time-use data have been gathered through self-reports or, in the case of children, self-reports and reports by parents, usually in telephone surveys. Despite their overall usefulness for sampling large numbers of people, self-report survey data are beset by problems of accuracy and reliability stemming from memory limitations and inaccurate estimations by respondents—especially when children are involved. More reliable methods of data collection exist, such as using the computer itself to track who is using the computer, the applications used, and the Web sites visited.87 But such methods have not been widely used because they are more expensive and time-consuming to carry out—and they raise concerns regarding privacy. Nevertheless, to derive more accurate estimates of the time children spend on home computers and the Internet and of the time children are not spending on other activities, such as reading, sports, and real-world social pursuits, however, more research using computer tracking is needed.
Second, although computers and the Internet are widely used by children for schoolwork and to obtain information, more and better evidence is needed to support the claim that home computer use can improve school performance. More research is necessary to determine if use of home computers can have significant, long-term effects on cognitive skills and academic achievement.
And third, children and adolescents are spending increasing amounts of time using home computers to play multiuser games and to communicate with others through the Internet. There is a pressing need for research to determine the impact of excessive computer and Internet use on their loneliness, social relationships, and psychological well-being. Research especially is needed on the newer generation of video games and Internet applications that are now available, such as multiuser online games, MUDs, and instant messaging.
Clearly, much more research is needed, but the research will never be perfect. We must begin to take steps now that can help maximize the positive effects and minimize the negative effects of home computers in children's lives.