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Children and Computer Technology

Children and Computer Technology

Children are spending an increasing amount of time with computers at school and at home. There are three main implications of this:

Firstly, children’s healthy development requires involve­ment in a variety of physical and social activities. The time children spend in front of screens of any type should not take up a disproportionate amount of their day. Second, parents, teachers, and other adults who work with children need guidance and support in their efforts to ensure that all children learn to use com­puters effectively and responsibly. More “high-quality” digital content and models of exemplary technology-supported prac­tices are needed—uses of computers to educate and inspire, not just entertain. And third, evidence suggests that use of computers can improve learning among children under certain circumstances, but these circumstances may be more limited than parents and educators. Much remains to be accomplished if we are to ensure that children not only acquire the necessary skills to use computers effectively as a tool in their daily lives, but also benefit from technology’s potential to enrich their learning both inside and outside the classroom.

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. 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. In addition, children may be exposed to vio­lent, sexual, or commercial content beyond their years, with long-term nega­tive effects.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

Usage is on the rise, specially among older teenage boys. 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.” 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. 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. 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

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. 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.

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. 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.

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.

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 well­being. The allure of computers stems from the fact that they can be used for a wide range of purposes. Although 1998 US census data indicated children were still using computers primarily to play games and to run stand-alone software, their use of the Internet is increasing rapidly. As of 2000, an estimated 21 million chil­dren and teens were accessing the Internet from home. 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. 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. 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.

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, 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.

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 can serve as an important building block to computer lit­eracy, and may be especially useful in the fields of science and technology. However 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, some research also suggests an association between playing violent computer games and increased aggression. 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.

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. A 1998 content analysis of popular video games found that nearly 80% had aggression or violence as an objective.

Use for Homework

After games, the next most frequently reported activity on the home computer for children over age eight is school assignments. 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, one well-controlled study of a computer-based after-school program demonstrated 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.

Surfing the Web

There is a 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. Yet 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.”

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, 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.

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. The lim­ited research on such use 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.

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. 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.”

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. 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. 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. 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.

Research on the effects of com­puter use is in its infancy, and most find­ings are only suggestive. 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.

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