Skip over navigation

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

The Impact of Home Computer Use on Children's Activities and Development
Kaveri Subrahmanyam Robert E. Kraut Patricia M. Greenfield Elisheva F. Gross

Effects on Social Development and Relationships

The use of home computers not only can influence children's cognitive and academic skills, but can also shape children's social interactions and development. In children's interactions with parents and other adult authority figures, one obvious effect has been the frequent reversal of the traditional parent–child relationship with the computer savvy child taking on the role of teacher to the parent. Several studies have found, for example, that teenagers are more likely to help their parents with computers than parents are to help their children—with boys disproportionately helping their fathers and girls disproportionately helping their mothers.41 In addition, some have hypothesized that the equality in online communications among computer users of all ages tends to erode authority structures, with the result that children will be less accepting of parental authority.42

With respect to interactions with peers, the effects of computer use again appear to depend as much on the type of activity engaged in while on the computer as on the amount of time spent in front of a screen. Because of the importance of interacting with others to gain social competence, concerns have been raised that children who form "electronic friendships" with computers instead of friendships with their peers might be hindered in developing their interpersonal skills.43 More than one-fifth of all children between ages 8 and 18 report having a computer in their bedroom,11 suggesting that the computer often may be used in solitude, robbing children of time for other social activities and interfering with the development and maintenance of friendships. Indeed, one recent survey found that, among junior high and high school students, more than 60% of all their computer time is spent alone.11 However, much of children's "alone time" on computers appears actually to be spent extending social relationships by connecting with others through interpersonal communication applications via the Internet. An overview of the research examining the social effects of children's use of computers—from the impact of game playing on friendships and aggressive behavior to the impact of the Internet on relationships and psychological well-being—is provided below.

Social Effects of Playing Computer Games

As mentioned earlier, game playing has long been the predominant use of home computers among children—especially among younger boys. Although the available research indicates that moderate game playing has little social impact on children, concerns nonetheless have been raised about excessive game playing, especially when the games contain violence. Research suggests that playing violent computer games can increase children's aggressive behavior in other situations.

Moderate Game-Playing Appears Benign

Existing research indicates that moderate game playing does not significantly impact children's social skills and relationships with friends and family either positively or negatively. Studies often found no differences in the "sociability" and social interactions of computer game players versus nonplayers,44 but a few studies found some mildly positive effects. For example, one study found that frequent game players met friends outside school more often than less frequent players. 45 Another study of 20 families with new home computer game sets explored the benefits and dangers of playing games and found that computer games tended to bring family members together for shared play and interaction.46

Less is known, however, about the long-term effects of excessive computer use among the 7% to 9% of children who play computer games for 30 hours per week or more.35 It has been suggested that spending a disproportionate amount of time on any one leisure activity at the expense of others will hamper social and educational development. 47 Indeed, one study of fourth- to twelfth-grade students found that those who reported playing arcade video games or programming their home computer for more than an hour per day, on average, tended to believe they had less control over their lives compared with their peers.48 In addition, some evidence suggests that repeated playing of violent computer games may lead to increased aggressiveness and hostility and desensitize children to violence.49

Links to Violent Behavior Raise Concerns

Although educational software for home computer use includes many games that encourage positive, pro-social behaviors by rewarding players who cooperate or share, the most popular entertainment software often involves games with competition and aggression,50 and the amount of aggression and violence has increased with each new generation of games.51 A content analysis of recent popular Nintendo and Sega Genesis computer games found that nearly 80% of the games had aggression or violence as an objective.52 One survey of seventh- and eighth-grade students found that half of their favorite games had violent themes.34 Yet parents often are unaware of even the most popular violent titles, despite the rating system from the Entertainment Software Ratings Board in place since September 1994 (see Box 3). In a 1998 survey, 80% of junior high students said they were familiar with Duke Nukem—a violent computer game rated "mature" (containing animated blood, gore, and violence and strong sexual content), but fewer than 5% of parents had heard of it.53

In the wake of violent incidents involving children and teens, such as the massacre at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado, in 1999, concern over the violent content of computer games has taken on an increasing sense of urgency for many parents, educators, and policymakers. The Columbine case particularly has highlighted the role of video games because the shooters were described as being "obsessed with the violent video game Doom—in which the players try to rack up the most kills—and played it every afternoon."54 In fact, the Web site of one of the shooters had a customized version of Doom that resembled a simulation of the later attack on Columbine High.55

Numerous studies have shown that watching violent television programs and films increases children's and adults' aggression and hostility56; thus, it is plausible that playing violent computer games would have similar effects. The research on violent computer games suggests that there is, indeed, an association between playing such games and increased aggression, and that the critical variable is a preference for playing aggressive games, rather than the amount of time spent playing.57 Several experimental studies suggest that playing a violent game, even for brief periods, has short-term transfer effects, such as increased aggression in children's free play,58 hostility to ambiguous questions,59 and aggressive thoughts.60 For example, one study of third and fourth graders found that those children who played a violent game (Mortal Kombat II) responded more violently to three of six open-ended questions than did children who played a nonviolent computer game (basketball). Furthermore, it has been found that children who have a preference for and play aggressive computer games demonstrate less pro-social behavior, such as donating money or helping someone.61

Studies of television have found that continued exposure to violence and aggression desensitizes children to others' suffering,62 but studies of computer games have not yet explored such a link. At least since the 1980s, however, both the U.S. and British military have used violent video games for training, reportedly to desensitize soldiers to the suffering of their targets and to make them more willing to kill.63

Social Effects of Communicating via the Internet

Using computers to communicate with others is an increasingly popular activity— especially among teen girls.64 Teens frequently make social contacts online through the various options now available on the Internet (see Box 4). Research suggests that the social effects of such computer use may depend, in part, on whether these online social contacts are with family and friends, or with strangers and acquaintances.

In one recent study, the HomeNet project, researchers conducted an in-depth analysis of the effects of acquiring access to the Internet among a group of 93 families (see Box 5). The study found that 10- to 19-year-olds (referred to inclusively as "teens") were especially likely to report using the Internet for social purposes. Compared with the adults in the study, teens—and especially girls—liked using the Internet for communicating with friends, meeting new people, getting personal help, and joining groups.65 Teens told researchers that keeping up with both local and distant friends was an important use of the Internet for them, and they often used the Internet for keep-in-touch communications involving small talk, gossip, and news of the day, with a "here-and-now" flavor. As discussed further below, the two-year study documented that, despite the use of the Internet for such social purposes, teens who spent more time online experienced greater declines in social and psychological well-being during their first year with access to the Internet. Over time, however, these effects appeared to diminish.

Evidence of Initial Increases in Loneliness and Depression

Among both teens and adults in the HomeNet project, greater use of the Internet during the first year of access was associated with small but statistically significant declines in social involvement as measured by communication within the family, size of social networks, and feelings of loneliness.66 Greater use of the Internet also was associated with increases in depression. In this study, those who were lonely or depressed were not more drawn to the Internet. Rather, the HomeNet results suggest that using the Internet in itself caused the declines in social well-being.67 It is unclear, however, whether these effects were because the time spent using the Internet was substituting for time previously spent engaged in social activities, or because social relationships created online provided less social support than those grounded in the offline world.68

The majority of HomeNet participants' online social relationships had their roots outside the Internet. Thus, online communications among HomeNet participants, all of whom were Internet neophytes, were used primarily to keep up with close friends and close family members—what sociologists term "strong ties."69 Using the computer for e-mail in these online relationships generally supplemented telephone and face-to-face visits, but rarely replaced these older communication modes. Teens in the study told researchers they would hurry home from school to have e-mail conversations with the friends they had just left. After going off to college, students frequently used e-mail to correspond with their parents and to keep up with high school friends.

HomeNet participants communicated online mostly with "strong tie" relationships, but they also created new online relationships with strangers they met through the use of Usenet news groups, listservs, multiuser domains (MUDs), and chat rooms (see Box 4). Although adults made more of their new online relationships through Usenet newsgroups and listservs, teens made more of their new online relationships through MUDs and chat rooms, which they said they frequented for the express purpose of interacting with strangers. Adolescence in the United States is typically characterized by experimentation with social relationships and an expansion of peer groups; thus, teens' use of the Internet for such social experimentation is consistent with this developmental stage in their lives.70

Online communications with strangers and acquaintances, however, represent relatively "weak tie" relationships that typically provide less social support than offline relationships with family and friends.71 Along with participants in other studies, HomeNet participants reported they felt less close to those they communicated with online compared to those they communicated with face-to-face. Less time was spent "together" in online relationships, and such relationships tended to exist for a shorter time.72 Strong relationships can be built from contacts made online, but generally such relationships require revealing one's "real self" (as opposed to role playing, as is often the case in a MUD or chat room) and benefit from being reinforced by contacts offline.73 In the HomeNet study, however, the online relationships created by participants typically remained in the electronic domain, rarely resulting in face-to-face meetings.74

Thus, teens in the HomeNet study spending greater amounts of time online in their first year of access may have experienced increased loneliness and depression because they spent more time in MUDs and chat rooms, communicating with "weak ties" with whom they had no offline contact, and less time communicating with "strong ties," who tend to provide stronger social support.

Changes in Effects Over Time

After having Internet access for about a year, however, HomeNet participants no longer experienced declines in social well-being or increased loneliness, despite continued use of the Internet. As with many learning processes, initial exposure may have generated dramatic changes in behavior that lessened over time.75 For example, the novelty of Internet access may have initially tempted teens to spend more time online than was good for them, to frequent Web sites that did not really interest them, and to communicate with others in "weak tie" relationships which did not really engage them. Then, as the novelty wore off, teens may have begun using the Internet more wisely, in ways better aligned with their true interests, such as communicating online more with those with whom they had "strong tie" relationships.

In addition, the Internet itself has changed over time. During 1995 and 1996, for example, when HomeNet respondents were using the Internet for the first time, MUDs and chat rooms were the two most popular services that could be used to communicate with other people in real time. Because these services connected anyone who logged into a common site, they increased the likelihood that users would communicate with strangers. In 1997 and 1998, in contrast, two new real-time communication services gained in popularity: Instant Messenger and ICQ ("I seek you"). Both of these services allow users to identify a list of people and to be notified when anyone on that list goes online. Such buddy lists, as they are known, increase the likelihood that people will communicate with others whom they already know. In addition, the growth in the proportion of the population online over the past few years means that the close friends and relatives of the HomeNet participants were more likely to have an Internet account in 1998 than in 1995. Thus, many different factors—from the preferences of teens for certain types of online activities to the evolution of the technology itself—influence the nature of online communications and the social effects of computer use on children and teens.

Effects of Greater Access to Information

As the Internet puts an increasing amount of information at children's fingertips, adults have begun to question whether such information encourages violent and sexually promiscuous behavior. For instance, information about building bombs is freely available on the Internet, and one of the Columbine students responsible for the massacre in April 1999 had detailed bombmaking instructions on his Web site. In a poll immediately following the incident, 76% of adults said they wanted Internet service providers to do more to monitor Web sites to identify potentially dangerous individuals, and 68% said they thought the federal government should do more.54 Yet the extent to which increased availability of information over the Internet contributes to violent behavior has not been systematically studied.

Similarly, the prevalence of sexually explicit material available on the Internet, including sexually explicit dialogue and the use of imagery to simulate sexual activity (or "cybersex") by children and teens, is also a major concern that has attracted little study. Some online communications about sex are educational and informative, such as public listservs, message boards, and Web sites that offer teens the opportunity to share questions, concerns, and experiences regarding sex.76 At the same time, some adults are concerned that these discussions, along with the preponderance of online flirting and cybersex among young people, will induce premature sexual activity. It is difficult to assess the extent or impact of these interactions because they often occur, not in the public space of MUDs, but in private conversations either in instant messages or private or restricted chat rooms. Interviews with girls who participate in such online activity, however, indicate that the information about sex gleaned from the Internet, including online sexual experiences, may actually encourage greater caution and patience when making sexual choices in real life.76 Thus, it is important to examine both the informative and social role of online interaction.

In sum, existing research suggests that the social effects of children's computer use vary widely, depending on the amount of time spent, type of activity engaged in, and the nature of content or information delivered. For example, the evidence suggests that computer games are most likely to lead to negative effects when the content of the games is violent. Online communications may cause loneliness and depression when they involve "weak tie" relationships, such as those resulting from encounters in MUDs and chat rooms. And finally, increased access to sexual content via the Web may encourage premature sexual activity, but there are indications that it also may encourage better sexual decision making. Still, many possible social effects are as yet unexplored.