Skip over navigation

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

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

New Media: Interactivity Accentuates Similar Promises and Concerns

Current debates surrounding the emergence of computer technology and new media echo the promises and concerns of the past. In a recent survey of more than 1,000 parents in households with at least one working computer and at least one child between ages 8 to 17, some 70% of parents said the Internet is a place for children to discover “fascinating, useful things,” while more than 75% were concerned that their children might give out personal information or view sexually explicit images on the Internet.2 Much as television critic Robert Lewis Shayon referred to television as the “New Pied Piper” in a series of newspaper articles in 1952, public commentaries in the 1980s gave voice to concerns that children were becoming “addicted” to interactive computer products.18

Following the pattern of earlier media research, initial studies about children and computers have centered on how much time children are spending with computers, their preferences for types of use, and the impact on other activities and playtime.19 And similarly, over time, the debate has shifted away from effects on children's use of time and preferences to issues of content. The interactive nature of new media offers the potential for enhanced socialization and learning for children, but also heightens the risk of exposure to inappropriate content. The promise of and concerns with children's use of computer technology, rooted in the history of media research, are explored further below.

The Promise of New Media as an Agent of Socialization and Learning

In today's society, children are exposed to media from a very young age. Even with respect to computer technology, surveys have found that children between ages two and five are using the computer for an average of 27 minutes per day.20 In addition, children begin demonstrating program and content preferences very early, almost as soon as they are exposed to media, although these preferences change over time as children grow older.21

Studies of media effects on children must be grounded in an understanding of the dramatic development that occurs during childhood, encompassing phenomenal biological, physiological, psychological, and social growth. By about age 12, children have acquired the major life skills of walking, talking, reading, caring for themselves, and understanding the world around them. Research has shown that media—along with family, peers, and school—can be a major agent of socialization and learning during this time, but that it is through a convergence of a child's developmental level and preferences, media content, and surrounding circumstances that the effects of media unfold.

Media Use and Social Development

Social development is the process by which children develop role-taking skills, learn to comprehend the motivations and consequences of behaviors, and come to understand human relationships in the social world.21 Major markers in a child's social development include the ability to see perspectives other than one's own, make moral judgments, and demonstrate a command of basic social skills. By the age of about seven, 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.22

Research on earlier media suggests that the impact of media on a child's social development depends on all of these factors. For example, a landmark study examining the links between movies, delinquency, and crime, published in 1933, concluded that motion pictures could play an important role in developing conceptions of life and transmitting patterns of conduct, but that the nature and direction of the effects on children's behavior were determined by two conditions: (1) the diversity and wide range of themes depicted on the screen; and (2) the social environment, attitudes, and interests of the boys and girls studied.23 About 30 years later, a similar conclusion was reached in a widely noted study on the effects of television—that the relationship is always between a kind of television and a kind of child in a kind of situation. When children have unsatisfactory relationships with their family members or peer groups, they are more likely to retreat to television and to fantasize about what they see. Children who come to television full of aggression tend to seek out violence in television, and to remember and resurrect the violence later in real life.

Similarly, the research being conducted today indicates that computer use can contribute to a child's self-perception and affect a child's socialization in a variety of ways in school and at home. In the school environment, shared computers often have been found to lead to group interaction and cooperation rather than social isolation.24 Young children's social interactions in a computer center were found to resemble their interactions in other play areas, and various studies have shown that computers can facilitate social interaction and cooperation, friendship formation, and constructive group play.25

The role of computers in fostering social relationships is further supported by observations that children usually turn to each other, rather than to an adult, for computing advice, even if an adult is available.26 In settings such as computer camps and clubs, children exchange ideas, swap software and games, and build relationships. Studies have shown that computer expertise gained at such camps helps children gain social status among their peers27 and enhance their self-esteem, especially among those who are not as successful in regular classroom settings.25

In the home setting, placement of the computer may play a somewhat stronger role in determining with whom the child uses technology. In a qualitative study of 70 families with home computers, more than half of the families placed the computer in an individual's bedroom or study rather than in a common family area, which might indicate computer use would be socially isolating. 28 However, the type of activities a child engages in when using the computer is also important. Some studies have indicated that home Internet use may result in increased loneliness and depression, but the research in this area is ambiguous.29 Clearly, e-mail and chat rooms have changed how young people communicate with each other, and computer and video games are a source of conversation and interaction among many children today.

Media Use and Cognitive Development

As children's interest, understanding, and use of media messages develops, so do their cognitive and logical thinking abilities. Research on children's learning shows that the extent of interactivity involved in an experience with media may affect the learning process. Interactivity is a natural element of face-to-face conversation, but it is also an element of communication via media. Because new media involves much greater potential for interactivity compared with earlier media, it also holds more promise for enriched learning experiences. (See the articles by Roschelle and colleagues and by Subrahmanyam and colleagues in this journal issue.)

Responsiveness and engagement are key elements of interactivity, which has been defined as the exchange of ideas and thoughts that build on previous statements within a given context.30 In earlier media contexts (film, radio, and television), one message is conveyed to many audience members. Yet even in these contexts, children—including very young children—have been found to respond.31 For example, one study found that babies as young as 6 to 12 months visually and vocally responded to television an average of one to two hours per day.32 Another study found that toddlers ages 18 to 24 months sang along with songs, pointed out characters and animals they knew, and generally showed involvement with and active processing of a television program.33 Moreover, responsive behaviors have become an integral part of many educational and entertainment programs, with characters asking questions of their young audience members and then pausing to wait for the child to respond, or talking into the camera as if speaking directly to the viewer.34

Compared with new media, earlier media forms are quite limited in their responsiveness, however. In earlier media, the character generally provides a staged response that cannot build on exchanges with the media user. Such a response cannot be labeled as true interactivity. Seymour Papert, a noted expert in the field of computers and learning, has suggested that earlier media, whether educational or not, still puts the child in a passive mode, a situation of seeing or hearing rather than doing.35 In contrast, computers can be programmed to respond to previous exchanges and give the user more control over the context of the exchange. And in turn, children have been found to be more responsive to computers than to earlier media, such as television. In a review of research on young children and computers, for example, one scholar reported that computer use produced far more active, positive, and emotionally varied facial expressions, and more vocalizations and smiling, compared with children's reactions when viewing television.36

Children are drawn to computer technology that enables—even demands—more active engagement. Across the range of software programs,37 studies indicate that children generally prefer more participatory forms of computer-assisted instruction.30 Even young children (birth to age eight) prefer programs that are animated and oriented toward problem solving and that give them a sense of control.26 The limited research that examines various educational and “edutainment” software applications indicates that the nature of a computing experience can have an impact on a child's learning and sense of self-worth and that computers can give a child an opportunity to develop mastery over technology and be more self-directed.38

In addition, studies suggest that strong educational benefits can result from the use of quality interactive software.39 Compared with more passive drill-and-practice software, more interactive software has been found to result in a higher degree of skill mastery and greater cooperation among users.40 Children's software for computer programming (using child-friendly languages such as Logo), for example, can increase problem-solving abilities among kindergartners and increase young children's ability to monitor their own comprehension.26 Moreover, use of computers to actively engage students in learning higher-order thinking skills has been linked to greater academic achievement in mathematics among fourth and eighth graders.41 (See the articles by Becker and by Roschelle and colleagues in this journal issue for further discussion of this topic.)

The Concerns with New Media and Exposure to Inappropriate Content

As discussed earlier, exposure to inappropriate content—advertising, sex, and violence—are concerns that have been raised with each wave of new technology. With the advent of new media, however, such concerns have been renewed and heightened because of the level of interactivity possible when playing computer games and using the communication features of the Internet. Remedies focused on parents as the gatekeepers for safeguarding children from potential harm may not be sufficient. Therefore, in addition to providing support for parents, various groups are working to improve the quality of media content for children.

Public debate in the early 1990s focused on the potential harm of violent and sexually explicit computer games, leading to an industry ratings system beginning in 1994.42,43 By the mid-1990s, public concern turned to the Internet and online environments, focusing on two key issues: (1) the possibility that children might interact with strangers and meet online pedophiles; and (2) the possibility that children might access objectionable content, including sex, violence, and hate sites.44 One study examined 668 news stories about children and the Internet from 12 newspapers between October 1997 and October 1998 and found very mixed messages in reports about children online.2 The stories presented the Internet as a Jekyll-and-Hyde phenomenon: “Your children need the Internet. But if they do go online, be terrified.”45 Although about half the articles mentioned positive aspects of Internet use for children, one-quarter featured sex crimes committed via the Internet, and two-thirds talked about problems such as pornography, pedophilia, and invasion of privacy.

As with previous waves of media technology, the challenge of dealing with children's use of the Internet has been largely left up to parents and children themselves, with little community help. Monitoring, using filters, and looking for safe and appropriate Web sites are all personal and private solutions by which parents can ward off the potentially harmful effects of their children's Internet use. To help parents concerned with their children's use of the Internet, various government and nonprofit groups now provide resources, both in print and online, with tips on how to use the Internet safely and productively.46

At the same time, several studies document that children, and young children especially, have difficulty differentiating reality from fantasy and regular programming from advertising.47 Most children, and indeed many adults, have difficulty understanding the complex relationship between programming, advertising, and the basic economic structures underlying broadcast media. Media literacy campaigns, begun in response to television advertising, have sought to strengthen children's awareness and understanding of the commercial interests underlying much of the content found on the Web. With training, children as young as five years old can become more critical media consumers, but the ability to comprehend media content and discern underlying messages and motives evolves slowly. In general, the burden of protecting children from exposure to harmful content continues to fall to parents.

Reminiscent of advocacy efforts with previous media, several groups have initiated efforts to combat the growing commercialism underlying children's media. The Center for Media Education, for example, has focused attention on advertising on the Internet and its implications for children today. Whereas advertising practices directed to children on television are regulated, no such regulations exist regarding Internet advertising (see the article by Montgomery in this journal issue). Other organizations such as the Children's Advertising Review Unit of the Council of Better Business Bureaus developed self-regulatory policies to promote responsible children's advertising. 48 Together, groups like these have been providing research on children's advertising and advancing the conversation on these issues to help create national policies for Internet advertising.

In addition, efforts to improve the quality of media content for children are being renewed—this time with attempts to build new partnerships between industry, researchers, and advocates. In July 2000, for example, a roundtable of media and high-technology executives, child advocates, academics, and federal government officials convened to rally support for developing quality, diverse, educational, and accessible content for children on the Internet, in computer games, and on digital television.49 (See Box 1 for a summary of the criteria for developing quality children's content discussed at the conference.) Conference participants concluded that new incentives and a new research agenda may be needed to sustain the development of quality content for children.

In sum, the introduction of computer technology into children's lives parallels the introduction of previous waves of new media technology throughout the past century, and many lessons can be learned from the history of media research about the effects of computers on children. But the “interactivity” that is the hallmark of children's use of new media enables both greatly enriched learning as well as increased risk of harm. Thus, new computer technology also brings a greater sense of urgency about the need to monitor and improve the quality of media content.