The Impact of Home Computer Use on Children’s Activities and Development Kaveri Subrahmanyam Robert E. Kraut Patricia M. Greenfield Elisheva F. Gross “I really want to move to Antarctica—I’d want my cat and Internet access and I’d be happy.” —16-year-old HomeNet participant (1995) Kaveri Subrahmanyam, Ph.D., is assistant professor of child development at California State University, Los Angeles. Robert E. Kraut, Ph.D., is professor of social psychology and humancomputer interaction at Carnegie Mellon University. Patricia M. Greenfield, Ph.D., is professor of psychology at the University of California, Los Angeles. Elisheva F. Gross, currently a Ph.D. candidate at the University of California, Los Angeles, was founding creative director of Plug In! Teen Talk on America Online, a nonprofit enterprise dedicated to developing communication, technical, and creative skills among atrisk teens.
The increasing amount of time children are spending on computers at home and school has raised questions about how the use of computer technology may make a difference in their lives—from helping with homework to causing depression to encouraging violent behavior. This article provides an overview of the limited research on the effects of home computer use on children’s physical, cognitive, and social development. Initial research suggests, for example, that access to computers increases the total amount of time children spend in front of a television or computer screen at the expense of other activities, thereby putting them at risk for obesity. At the same time, cognitive research suggests that playing computer games can be an important building block to computer literacy because it enhances children’s ability to read and visualize images in three-dimensional space and track multiple images simultaneously. The limited evidence available also indicates that home computer use is linked to slightly better academic performance. The research findings are more mixed, however, regarding the effects on children’s social development. Although little evidence indicates that the moderate use of computers to play games has a negative impact on children’s friendships and family relationships, recent survey data show that increased use of the Internet may be linked to increases in loneliness and depression. Of most concern are the findings that playing violent computer games may increase aggressiveness and desensitize a child to suffering, and that the use of computers may blur a child’s ability to distinguish real life from simulation. The authors conclude that more systematic research is needed in these areas to help parents and policymakers maximize the positive effects and to minimize the negative effects of home computers in children’s lives. The Future of Children CHILDREN AND COMPUTER TECHNOLOGY Vol. 10 • No. 2 – Fall/Winter 2000
THE FUTURE OF CHILDREN – FALL/WINTER 2000
he time is ripe to assess the impact of home computer use on child and adolescent development. Most American children now have access to home computers and are using them for everything from playing games to doing schoolwork to chatting with friends via e-mail to surfing the Web. In 1999, an estimated 67% of households with children had a computer game system such as Sega or Nintendo,1 60% had home computers, and 37% had home access to the Internet—more than twice the percentage with access in 1996.2 Although children still spend more time watching television than using computers, when a nationally representative sample of children ages 8 to 18 were asked which medium they would choose to bring with them to a desert isle, more chose a computer with Internet access than any other medium, including television.3 With the increased role of home computers in children’s lives has come increased concern about how children may be affected. Time spent on home computers may displace other activities that have more...