Does using the Internet affect children’s development?
By Udoka Emmanuel Chika-dibie
Do children become socially isolated or connected when they use the Internet? Do they become depressed or elated? Does school performance suffer or improve? A wealth of opinion, anecdotal evidence and media hype has attempted to answer these questions. At one extreme are the Internet enthusiasts who view Internet use as the panacea for all that plagues society, including inadequacies in the educational system. At the other extreme are the Internet alarmists who view Internet use as undermining the very fabric of society, including the healthy development of its children. Most people fall somewhere between these extremes. Most are waiting for research to answer these questions.
HomeNetToo is a longitudinal field study designed to examine the antecedents and consequences of home Internet use in low-income families. Funded by an Information Technology Research grant from the National Science Foundation, the project began in the fall of 2000, when 90 families were recruited to participate in the 18-month study. Families agreed to have their Internet use automatically and continuously recorded, to complete surveys at multiple points during the project, and to participate in home visits during which basic instruction on how to use the Internet was provided. In exchange, each family received a new home computer, Internet access and in-home technical support.
Participants in the HomeNetToo project were 117 adults and 140 children residing in a low-income, medium-sized urban community in the mid-western United States. Adults were primarily African American (67%), female (80%), never married (42%) and earning less than $15,000 per year (49%). Most of the children were African American (83%), male (58%), and living in single-parent households (75%). Average age of child participants was 13 years old. This report focuses on the children in the project – how using the Internet influenced their social, psychological and academic outcomes, and the implications of these findings for future research and public policy regarding the digital divide.
How frequently do children use the Internet?
Numerous surveys have attempted to measure how frequently children use the Internet at home. Estimates vary from as high as several hours a day to as low as 3 hours a week, depending on how Internet use is measured (e.g., self-report, automatically recorded), age of children sampled. Despite high variability in empirical estimates, public perception is that children spend a great deal of time online (Tapscott, 1998).
In the HomeNetToo project we recorded multiple measures of Internet use to permit a more fine-grained analysis of how children are spending their time online. Our findings indicated that HomeNetToo children spent about 30 minutes per day online, logging in only once, and visiting about ten unique domains. However, much to our initial surprise, use of the Internet for communication was rare. HomeNetToo children sent less than 1 e-mail a week. Medians for all communication activities were zero. Indeed by the end of the project only 16% of the children were using e-mail, 25% were instant messaging and 16% were participating in chat activities.
Why did HomeNetToo children make so little use of the Internet’s communication tools, a finding we also observed in HomeNetToo adults? In hindsight, the answer is so obvious as to be easily overlooked. They simply had no one to communicate with! HomeNetToo children were poor. It is likely that their friends and extended family members were poor. Poor people do not typically have home Internet access.
Does Internet use affect children’s social outcomes?
Few studies and inconsistent findings render uncertain whether using the Internet has any influence on children’s social outcomes. On the one hand, time spent online is time not spent elsewhere, including participating in social activities and communicating with family and friends. On the other hand, the Internet facilitates communication with geographically distant family and friends, and makes it easier to communicate frequently with those nearby.
In the HomeNetToo project we examined two types of social outcomes that may be influenced by children’s Internet use: number of close friends and changes in the amount of time spent with family, friends and activities (e.g., extra-curricular school activities, sleeping). On average, children reported having seven close friends. This number remained the same over time and was uninfluenced by Internet use. How children allocated their time did change over time but these changes were unrelated to Internet use.
Findings discussed earlier may explain why Internet use had no social impact. HomeNetToo children, like the adults in the project, made little use of the Internet’s communication tools (e.g., e-mail). The Internet’s social impact may depend on using these tools to build new relationships and/or strengthen existing ones. Social impact may also depend on personal and situational factors, some of which have been examined in previous research with adults and others of which have yet to be identified. Alternatively, it may be that Internet use has no social impact. Like media that have preceded it (e.g., books), the Internet may be seamlessly integrated into people’s ongoing lives.
Does Internet use affect children’s psychological outcomes?
As was the case for social outcomes, few studies have examined the relationship between children’s Internet use and psychological outcomes. In fact we could locate only two studies that directly addressed this relationship. One found adverse psychological effects of Internet use for teens (i.e., greater loneliness and depression with greater Internet use; but a follow-up study suggested that these effects disappeared with Internet experience. The only available review of this research concluded that there is no evidence that computer use is directly related to any psychological outcomes.
In the HomeNetToo project we focused on two types of psychological outcomes: general affect and feelings of self-worth. More time online was associated with less negative affect, but only during the first three months when home Internet access was still a novelty. More logins were associated with more negative affect throughout the trial, possibly because they indicate interruptions in Internet activities. Feelings of self-worth began high and remained high. Using the Internet had no effect on these feelings.
Does Internet use affect children’s academic outcomes?
A considerable body of research has examined the effects of computer use on academic outcomes. However, reviews of this literature typically conclude that the results are inconclusive. Although benefits of computer use have been observed, they typically depend on a variety of factors (e.g., subject matter). The only cognitive outcome for which benefits have been consistently observed is visual-spatial skills. Computer gaming contributes to visual-spatial skills, at least when these skills are assessed immediately following the computer activities.
There are important caveats in interpreting these findings. First, HomeNetToo children were performing below average at the start of the project. Mean GPA was about 2.0, and mean percentile ranks on standardized tests of reading and math were about 30%. Whether similar benefits of Internet use will obtain for children performing at or above average is a question for future research. Second, the gains we observed, though statistically significant, were modest in magnitude. Mean GPAs and standardized test scores were still below average at the end of the project. However, even modest gains are encouraging, particularly in light of the fact that HomeNetToo children were not required to use the Internet in order for their families to participate in the project.
using the Internet lead to improvements in GPAs and reading test scores? One explanation lies in how Home Net Too children used the Internet. Recall that Internet use was primarily Web use, not e-mail use or use of other communication tools. The Web is primarily text. Thus, more time on the Web means more time spent reading, which may explain the increase in GPAs, which depend heavily on reading skills, and in standardized tests scores in reading.
Overall, findings from the HomeNetToo project indicate that home Internet use has no adverse effects on children’s social or psychological outcomes, and has positive effects on their academic outcomes. More research is needed to examine the generalizibility of these findings, to identify mediating mechanisms by which Internet use influences academic outcomes, and to develop and evaluate interventions designed to maximize the benefits of Internet use for children. The public policy implications of our findings are clear. Children who may stand to benefit most from home Internet access are the very children least likely to have it. The vision of the Internet as the technology that levels the playing field in education will remain just that – a vision, unless visionary leaders launch a concerted effort to make the Internet available to all.