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Journal Issue: Children and Computer Technology Volume 10 Number 2 Fall/Winter 2000

Children and Computer Technology: Analysis and Recommendations
Margie K. Shields Richard E. Behrman

The Risks and Benefits of Use

Excessive, unmonitored use of computers, especially when combined with use of other screen technologies, such as television, can place children at risk for harmful effects on their physical, social, and psychological development. Children need physical activity, social interaction, and the love and guidance of caring adults to be healthy, happy, and productive.14 Too much time in front of a screen can deprive children of time for organized sports and other social activities that are beneficial to child development.15 In addition, children may be exposed to violent, sexual, or commercial content beyond their years, with long-term negative effects.16 To ensure healthy and appropriate use of computers both at school and at home, children's computer time must be limited and their exposure to different types of content must be supervised.

Limits on Extent of Exposure Needed

At present, excessive use of computers among children, especially younger children, is not typical. National survey data gathered in spring 2000 indicate that children ages 2 to 17 spent about 34 minutes per day, on average, using computers at home, with use increasing with age.17 (Preschoolers ages 2 to 5 averaged 27 minutes per day, school-age children ages 6 to 11 averaged 49 minutes per day, and teens ages 12 to 17 averaged 63 minutes per day.) Available data on computer use at school suggest that exposure in the early primary grades, at least, is relatively modest. A spring 1999 survey of 26 elementary schools in the heart of Silicon Valley, where computer use might be expected to be high, found that although 70% of teachers in kindergarten through third grade had their students do some work on computers, the students' computer time averaged less than 10 minutes per day.18 These data suggest that younger children in particular are not currently using computers for excessive amounts of time.

Usage is on the rise, however, and some children—especially older teenage boys—have reported spending 4 hours a day or more using their home computers. 19 In addition, it appears that time spent using home computers does not displace much, if any, time spent watching television; instead, access to home computers appears to increase the amount of children's overall "screen time."20 Survey data gathered in spring 2000 indicate that when children between the ages of 2 and 17 have access to computers and video games as well as television, they spend, on average, about 5 hours a day in front of some type of screen, over an hour more than children without such access.21

Children who spend an excessive amount of time in front of computers and other screens are likely to be displacing activities required for healthy development and increasing their risk of obesity. In addition, children's increased computer time could expose them to harmful impacts on their eyes, backs, and wrists.22 Although the number of studies documenting the relationship between children's computer use and such harmful effects is limited, such studies, taken together with findings on the effects of other media on children and findings on the effects of computer use on adults, suggest that the risks of excessive computer use can be significant

For example, although little systematic research documents the relationship between children's computer use and obesity, evidence does show that obesity in children is linked to excessive time in front of a television screen—defined as five or more hours a day.23 The sedentary time spent in front of a computer screen likely poses a similar risk.

Also, some researchers have issued warnings about the risk of repetitive strain injuries from use of computers at workstations not well designed for children, and possible harmful effects on children's vision from staring too long at a computer screen.24 Most of the evidence concerning these physical risks is inferred from studies of adult use of computers in the workplace. For example, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) within the U.S. Department of Labor has reported that each year, 230,000 workers suffer injury from overexertion or repetitive motion, such as that caused by excessive computer use.25 Citing the potential risks from, among other things, "using a keyboard again and again," in November 1999, OSHA proposed new ergonomics requirements to reduce injuries among workers caused by excessive computer use. Excessive use of computers by children could put them at risk for similar injuries. More child-focused studies are needed to determine how much computer use is too much for children of different ages and how to intersperse breaks and provide ergonomic supports to minimize risk.

Excessive computer use may also affect children's social development. By the age of about seven years, a child's interactions with family, peers, school, community networks, and media all play an important role in the development of interpersonal skills and social competence.26 Computers are now part of that mix, and concerns have been raised that children who form "electronic friendships" instead of human friendships might be hindered in developing interpersonal skills.27 Such concerns are heightened by reports that among children ages 8 to 16, some 20% have computers—and 11% have Internet access—in their bedrooms,28 which suggests that a sizable number of children may use computers in social isolation. Indeed, some research has documented negative social effects from time spent on computers. For example, one in-depth analysis of the effects of Internet use among a group of 93 families found that, during their first year with access, teens who spent more time online experienced greater declines in social involvement and increases in their feelings of loneliness and depression.29 Similarly, in the school setting, although group use of computers is more common, concerns have been raised about the possibility that computers may be used to replace, rather than augment, child-to-child and child-to-teacher relationships.22

To minimize the increased risk of obesity, as well as several other harmful effects of extensive media exposure, the American Academy of Pediatrics advises parents to limit children's time spent with computers, video games, and other media to perhaps no more than one to two hours a day, and to emphasize alternative activities such as imaginative play and sports.30

Supervision of Activities and Content Quality Needed

In addition to the extent of time, the types of activities children engage in while using computers can also affect their intellectual, social, and psychological well-being. The allure of computers stems from the fact that they can be used for a wide range of purposes. Although 1998 census data indicated children were still using computers primarily to play games and to run stand-alone software,31 their use of the Internet is increasing rapidly.17 As of 2000, an estimated 21 million children and teens were accessing the Internet from home.32 And once online, a child can choose to engage in activities across a wide range of possibilities. When games were the principal option, boys spent much more time with computers than girls did.33,20 Now that the array of nongame applications has widened, girls report use of home computers as often, and with as much confidence, as boys do.34 Children of both genders surf the Web for music and photos of movie stars, use e-mail to exchange messages with friends, and especially among teens, use the Internet to visit multiuser domains (MUDs) and chat rooms.

Not surprisingly, the effects of computer use vary significantly by the type of activity and the quality of content. The experiences of children playing violent computer games are quite different from those playing educational games; the experiences of children visiting informative, nonprofit Web sites are quite different from those logging on to sites sponsored by media conglomerates and toy companies; and the experiences of children exchanging e-mails with friends and family are quite different from those communicating with strangers in MUDs and chat rooms. What can be gleaned from the research about the effects of various experiences is summarized below, but the picture is sketchy and incomplete. Much further research is needed before we have sufficient data to understand how different computer activities are affecting our nation's children.

Playing Games

Playing games has long been the most common computer activity for children, especially younger boys. But computer games vary widely in terms of content and potential effects. Some, such as SimCity,35 have been shown to have considerable educational value. Others, however, such as Duke Nukem and Doom, expose children to extreme violence, possibly disposing them to subsequent aggressive behavior.20

As reported in the article by Subrahmanyam and colleagues in this journal issue, some studies suggest that moderate use of computers to play games has no significant impact on children's friendships and family relationships, and can even enhance certain visual intelligence skills, such as the ability to read and visualize images in three-dimensional space, and to track multiple images simultaneously. Such skills, Subrahmanyam and colleagues contend, can serve as an important building block to computer literacy, and may be especially useful in the fields of science and technology. However, Healy questions these claims in her commentary in this journal issue, noting that there is little, if any, evidence that the visual-spatial skills fostered by computer games contribute in any meaningful way to the academic skills needed for math and science.

In addition, however, just as research has documented that watching violent films and television programming can lead to increased hostility and aggression in children,36 some research also suggests an association between playing violent computer games and increased aggression. 37 Although the causal direction of the association is unclear, the critical variable linked to subsequent aggressive behavior appears to be the child's preference for playing such games. According to Subrahmanyam and colleagues, the amount of aggression and violence has increased in each generation of computer games, and parents are often unaware of the extent of the violence, even though many of the most popular games have violent themes.33,38 A 1998 content analysis of popular video games found that nearly 80% had aggression or violence as an objective.39 In September 2000, the Federal Trade Commission reported that violent computer games rated "mature" (for adults only) were being marketed aggressively to children under age 17.40 We agree with the commission that sanctions should be imposed for such marketing violations, and that parental understanding of the ratings should be increased by including the reasons for the rating in all advertising and product packaging.

Use for Homework

After games, the next most frequently reported activity on the home computer for children over age eight is school assignments.31 While use of a home computer is widely assumed to have a positive impact on children's learning, little research exists to confirm this assumption. The limited evidence available suggests that home computer use is linked to slightly better academic performance, but these studies failed to control for other factors. Thus, it is difficult to know whether a child's academic performance reflects use of a home computer or a greater level of family income and education —factors that are highly correlated with both home computer ownership and better academic performance.

Nevertheless, Subrahmanyam and colleagues cite one well-controlled study of a computer-based after-school program demonstrating that children who participated in the program achieved small but significant gains in reading, mathematics, computer knowledge, and grammar, were better able to follow directions, and scored higher on school achievement tests, compared with nonparticipants. These effects were found even though the program emphasized voluntary participation in a mix of fun and learning activities rather than a structured instructional intervention.41

Surfing the Web

The article by Montgomery in this journal issue describes the rich array of Web sites created for children by nonprofit organizations, museums, educational institutions, and government agencies—sites that offer opportunities to form communities with other children, to create original works of art and literature, and to explore the world. For example, one site, Yo! Youth Outlook, sponsored by the Pacific News Service, provides an online version of a monthly magazine by and about young people that lets children speak for themselves.42 The site Parents and Children Together Online, sponsored by the Family Literacy Center at Indiana University, is designed to facilitate online storytelling.43 Another site, Planet Youth, sponsored by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, provides colorful material and links to sites describing Native American culture, history, education, arts, and sciences.44

Yet Montgomery describes how, for the most part, educational sites are being overshadowed by the heavily promoted commercial sites, many of which are tied to popular television shows and toy companies. Utilizing the unique interactive features of the Internet, companies are able to integrate advertising and Web site content to promote "brand awareness" and "brand loyalty" among children, encouraging them to become consumers at a very early age. Companies are even employing a variety of strategies to facilitate online purchases by children through the creation of "digital wallets." According to one industry report, teens spent an estimated $161 million online in 1999 and are expected to spend over $1.4 billion in 2002.45

In addition, much information not intended for children is available on the Web—such as instructions on how to build bombs, bulletin boards for hate groups, and sexually explicit imagery— giving rise to a host of concerns about exposure to inappropriate content. Although little research exists on the effects of exposure to various types of Web content, as discussed in the article by Wartella and Jennings in this journal issue, studies of the effects of other types of media (including film, radio, and television) found that children were influenced by exposure to different types of programming. For example, some studies indicated that children who viewed more cartoons and action-oriented television programming were more impulsive and less analytic in their thinking, whereas children who viewed other types of programming improved their thinking skills and academic performance.46 Earlier research on other media generally concluded that while the effects of media use could be powerful, such effects are generally mitigated by other important factors, such as the child's developmental level and family circumstances.47

Communicating via the Internet

Children's use of the Internet to send and receive e-mail and visit chat rooms is changing the way many young people communicate with each other.48 The limited research on such use, as detailed in the article by Subrahmanyam and colleagues, indicates that to the extent young Internet users are honest about how they portray themselves online (that is, they communicate as their "real selves"), and their online contacts are with family and friends, there are few, if any, negative effects, and perhaps even some positive ones. Teens, especially, report that keeping up with local and distant friends is a very important use of the Internet for them.20 In addition, the article by Hasselbring and Williams Glaser in this journal issue notes that the opportunity to communicate with others through the computer can free children with special needs from the fear of being stigmatized and can enable them to network with other children to share their feelings about having a disability.49 The PatchWorx Web site is one example of how the Internet can provide an online community for young people facing illness and disability to "share stories, ideas, laughter and tears, to learn from each other, and to make friends with common interests."50

However, extended use of the Internet to access a virtual world of multiuser domains (MUDs), multi-identity chat rooms, and multiparty games has been linked to increases in loneliness and depression, and to the possible blurring of a child's ability to distinguish real life from simulation. As described in the article by Subrahmanyam and colleagues, in these virtual environments, where children assume multiple identities and interact with strangers, the distinction between real life and simulation may not always be clear. In chat rooms, there is often no way to know if one is interacting with a "real person" or with a fabricated character. Studies suggest that immersion in a virtual environment can have powerful effects, yet little is known about this phenomenon.51 As younger children as well as older children begin to participate more frequently in MUDs and simulation environments, it becomes increasingly important to understand the impact of these experiences on children's psychological development.

Research suggests that time spent in MUDs and chat rooms may be the underlying cause of the increases in loneliness and depression among teens mentioned earlier. In the study identifying this link, many of the teens said they frequented MUDs and chat rooms specifically to interact with strangers.20 When, over time, they began to use the Internet to communicate more with friends and family, who tend to provide stronger social support, the negative effects diminished.

In sum, research on the effects of computer use is in its infancy, and most findings are only suggestive. Indeed, current research provides few clear answers to many basic questions. For example, some studies suggest that use of computers for playing educational games, visiting nonprofit Web sites, and doing homework may provide intellectual and academic benefits, but the gains are generally small or inconclusive. Likewise, some evidence suggests that use of computers for playing violent computer games and visiting MUDs and chat rooms can have negative social and psychological effects on children, but these effects are often mitigated by other important factors, such as a child's developmental level and family circumstances. Thus, the extent of any negative social or psychological effects is as yet unknown. More systematic, controlled studies examining the broad range of topics discussed above are needed to better understand the effects of computer use on children's development and to help parents and policymakers maximize the positive effects and minimize the negative effects of computers in children's lives.



  • More public and private research dollars should be allocated to assessing the effects of extended computer use and exposure to various types of computer content on children's physical, intellectual, social, and psychological development.

Research takes time, however. We cannot wait until studies are complete to begin taking action to protect our nation's children from potential risks. To help parents and other adults protect children from inappropriate commercial, sexual, and violent content, many steps have been initiated, as discussed below. Further action will be required if we hope to not only protect children, but to empower them to use computer technology effectively and appropriately as tools throughout their lives.

Helping Children Be Safe and Savvy

Clearly, our foremost concern must be to protect our children from harm. Even in the absence of definitive research, steps must be taken to protect children from potential risks through controls and closer monitoring. While protecting our children from harm, however, we must also strive to inspire. Children should be encouraged to use computers in ways that instill a thirst for knowledge and a zeal for positive social engagement.

Efforts to Protect

Government and private initiatives have been introduced to help protect children from inappropriate content. For instance, the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act, passed by Congress in 1998, requires parental permission before commercial Web sites can collect personal information from children under age 13. Other legislative initiatives to prohibit the distribution of indecent content to minors via the Internet have been introduced, but enforcement has been barred pending constitutional challenges as a violation of free speech.52 Meanwhile, several companies have created a variety of filtering, blocking, and monitoring software tools for parents to safeguard their children from harmful content or predators. Although the effectiveness of blocking strategies is a topic of continuing debate, data gathered in spring 2000 showed that although just 5% of children surveyed knew how to circumnavigate such devices, only about one-third of all families with online access used protective software of some sort.53 Further, the survey found that about half of all children with home access to the Internet have no parental restrictions on the amount of time they spend online or the type of content they access.



  • Parents, teachers, and other adults working with children should limit the amount of time children spend using computers and supervise the content children are exposed to, including games, software, and the Web.

Efforts to Improve Quality

The software and digital media industries should also be challenged to examine the learning experiences being promoted to our nation's children through their use of computers. As noted by Montgomery, there is little doubt that the emerging media system will play a significant role in helping children become consumers, thus contributing to the growth of our economy. But new media content should also play a significant role in helping the next generation become more engaged as citizens, thus contributing to the health of our democracy. A more proactive definition of quality content for children is needed—one that involves the enhancement of children's learning and development, not merely their freedom from harm.

To ensure the existence and, indeed, the flourishing of civic content on the Web, new partnerships between researchers, software and Internet companies, and government agencies are needed. As detailed in the article by Wartella and Jennings, we know from past experience that market forces alone are not sufficient to provide quality content for entertainment purposes, let alone for more altruistic purposes such as the promotion of positive civic engagement. New incentives are needed to encourage the development of high-quality content that responds to the noncommercial interests and needs of all segments of society.54 In July 2000, media and technology executives, child advocates, researchers, and federal government officials began a dialogue about creating incentives for providing quality content.55 Such dialogues should be nurtured, with continued involvement of industry and input from children, to help strategize how the powerful capabilities of computers and the Internet can be used not only to serve commercial and entertainment functions, but to help fulfill our nation's fundamental democratic values.



  • Public, private, and nonprofit groups concerned with the role of computer technology in society should support and encourage the dialogue that has been initiated among researchers, software and Internet companies, and government agencies to create new incentives for developing high-quality content for children.

Efforts to Promote Computer Literacy

As Lipper and Lazarus note in their commentary in this journal issue, parents can and should play a greater role in guiding their children's use of new media and advocating in the public policy arena and marketplace for the development of relevant, high-quality content. To help parents fulfill this role, various government and nonprofit groups now provide resources, both in print and online, with tips on how to use the Internet safely and productively. But most children, and indeed, many adults, have difficulty understanding the complex relationship between programming, advertising, and the basic economic structures underlying broadcast media generally and the Web in particular. With training, children as young as five years old can begin to become more critical media consumers, but the ability to comprehend media content and discern underlying messages and motives evolves slowly.56

Parents, teachers, other adults who work with children, and children themselves need media literacy training to become safe and savvy computer users. Such training can help users understand the motives underlying various types of content on the Web.57 According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, research strongly suggests that media literacy training can result in young people becoming less vulnerable to the negative aspects of media exposure and more able to make good choices about how they spend their time on computers.16

Better ratings and labeling and quality content cannot improve children's use of computers unless children are motivated to use the better software and log on to the higherquality sites. Otherwise, as noted by Dede in his commentary in this journal issue, today's "couch potatoes" immersed in television fantasy may become tomorrow's "couch funguses" immersed in virtual environments, and the higher-quality content will be ignored.



  • Schools and community organizations should provide media literacy training for teachers, parents, other adults who work with children, and children themselves to strengthen their critical understanding of the motives underlying much of the software and content found on the Web and to empower children to make good choices about their computer use.

Media literacy, however, views computers as analogous to television and other media—with the user passively, albeit critically, receiving the content provided. Computer literacy must encompass a more active role for children, one that empowers them to use computers to create, to design, to invent—not merely to receive information passively from the screen. To paraphrase Resnick's commentary in this journal issue, children must learn to use computers "more like finger paint and less like television." To become computer literate in this way, children must have opportunities to use a broad range of applications, from word processing, spreadsheets, and graphics to simulations, networking, and programming.

Even the concept of computer literacy, encompassing a broad range of skills, is too modest a goal, according to an increasing number of experts in the field, because existing skills and applications quickly become outdated.3 Instead, the concept of "computer fluency" has been introduced to capture the notion of sufficient expertise with and understanding of computers to lay a foundation for lifelong learning. Computer fluency has been defined as the ability to use computers to express oneself creatively, to reformulate knowledge, to synthesize information, and to adapt to continuous change. Supporters of this view maintain that children must achieve computer fluency to become effective and responsible users of technology throughout their lives. In August 1997, the National Research Council's Computer Science and Telecommunications Board (CSTB) embarked on an effort to define the skills and knowledge required to achieve computer fluency.3 Although the focus of the CSTB effort was primarily on college-level education, the conceptual framework was described as a continuum, with relevance for K–12 education as well. In a parallel effort to help define what children need to know about computer technology "to live, learn, and work successfully in an increasingly complex and information-rich society," the International Society for Technology in Education launched a collaboration to develop national educational technology standards (commonly referred to as "NETS") for technology-literate students at the K–12 level. Representatives from elementary and secondary schools, universities, corporations, foundations, and government worked together to "generate" a set of profiles reflecting the technology skills needed at key developmental points to support learning, personal productivity, decision making, daily life tasks, and lifelong learning.58 For each grade level, standards were proposed covering six basic categories of skills:

  • Basic operations and concepts
  • Social, ethical, and human issues
  • Technology productivity tools
  • Technology communication tools
  • Technology research tools
  • Technology problem-solving and decision-making tools

To ensure healthy, age-appropriate, enriching access to technology for all children, parents, teachers, and other adults who work with children must feel well prepared not only to teach basic computer skills, but to empower children to use computers more effectively and responsibly in many different ways throughout their lives. Standards such as NETS provide a useful guide to the technology skills children need for the future. To minimize the potential risks of excessive computer use, as a next step, guidelines for how much time children of different ages should use computers each day would be helpful.



  • State and local education agencies should refine and adopt age-appropriate guidelines for children's computer fluency. Such guidelines should be disseminated to all elementary and secondary teachers and incorporated into pre-service and in-service technology training sessions.