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

Children and Computers: New Technology - Old Concerns
Ellen Wartella Nancy Jennings


With the introduction of each new wave of innovation in mass media throughout the twentieth century—film, radio, television—debates on the effects of new technology have recurred, especially with regard to the effect on young people.1 Each new media technology brought with it great promise for social and educational benefits, and great concern for children's exposure to inappropriate and harmful content.

The wired computer provides today's new mass media—and computer games, CD-ROMs, and the Web are the focus of today's media debates. Sixty percent of American homes with children ages 8 to 17 have computers, and most of these computers are connected to the Internet.2 Supporters of computer technology point to the social and educational benefits of interactivity, while others warn of its potential harms. Concerns about children's use of computers are being raised in the press, by parents, and increasingly, in public policy forums. In many ways, these debates echo those surrounding the introduction of other new media throughout the past century.

This article places the current controversy and research on children and computers in a historical context. As a new era of research on children's use of computers begins, a look back at public controversy and research studies documenting the effects of older media is useful both to point out where we have been, and to determine how we might proceed in the future.1 The first section describes the debates surrounding the introduction of earlier media, noting the similar promises and objections and trends in research that have emerged each time. The second section provides a more detailed discussion of how the controversy and research surrounding the introduction of computer technology and new media reflect these same themes. The article concludes with a few brief observations about directions for the future.