What is the actual effect of prolonged internet use on children? Several recent studies have tried to address this very issue, with both complementary and conflicting results.

Two studies examined and compared different types of media use by kids.

The studies attempt to draw conclusions about the effects of high internet use versus other types of media—namely television, movies, music, and print.

In “Kids & Media: The New Millennium,” the Kaiser Family Foundation (KFF) revealed that the typical American child ages two to 18 spends an average of almost five-and-a-half hours per day consuming media outside of school. This number is even higher for children eight and older; they spend almost seven hours per day consuming different types of media.

According to the KFF study, far fewer kids are taking advantage of their at-home computers than their television sets. Despite the fact that nearly seven out of 10 kids have a computer at home and nearly half have internet access, kids still spend a comparatively small amount of time with their computers. The children surveyed averaged less than half an hour per day using a computer for fun, compared with two-and-three-quarter hours per day watching television.

The study also found kids spend less time using computers than listening to music (an average of an hour and a half per day) and reading for fun (45 minutes per day on average).

Students likely to use computers after school typically come from higher-income communities, according to “Kids & Media.” Half of all affluent children reported using a computer, while only 29 percent of lower-income kids reported using one. Schools are helping to bridge that gap, however, as students are almost equally likely to use a computer in class whether they come from lower- or higher-income families.

Another recent nationwide study about the effects of computer use on children found significant disparities between kids who primarily use computers for after-school fun and those who watch TV. The Berenter, Greenhouse & Webster study of 157 boys and girls ages nine-12 revealed that frequent computer users–kids who log on from three to seven times a week–spent half as much time reading as high TV watchers (those who watch more than 16 hours of television per week).

Students classified as frequent computer users also tended to report having fewer friends, according to the study: They reported only two close friends, versus five for frequent television watchers. The Berenter, Greenhouse & Webster study also revealed that frequent computer users were less likely to play sports than infrequent computer users and frequent TV watchers.

But the Kaiser Family Foundation study found that far fewer kids are spending their after-school time playing computer games or web-surfing than one might suspect. Only nine percent of kids spend more than an hour per day using a computer for fun, while 64 percent of kids reported watching more than one hour of TV per day.

“Kids & Media” identified one subset of children in the eight- to 18-year-old range who they classified as “heavy” media users: students who spend more than 10-and-a-half hours a day using media. About one in six kids falls into this category, according to survey findings.

Heavy media users scored lower on a self-rated “contentedness index” than regular media users, according to the report. They also reported they were less happy at school, had fewer friends, got along more poorly with their parents, got into more trouble, and were more often sad, bored, or unhappy than their peers.

The study does not try to explain why heavy media users reported being less content, but it does state that even when controlling for factors such as race, age, family composition, and community income, heavy media users still claimed to be less happy than their counterparts.

A third study, conducted by Intersurvey for Stanford University’s Institute for the Quantitative Study of Society, polled 4,113 people of all ages about the effects of internet use on their lives. Twenty-five percent of those surveyed who use the internet more than five hours per week claimed to spend less time than they used to with friends and family, either on the phone or in person. Ten percent also said increased internet use has reduced the frequency of their out-of-home social activities.

In contrast to KFF’s findings, Stanford researchers found that increased internet use caused a reduction of other media use.

“We find that about 60 percent of those who use the internet more than five hours a week are telling us it is coming out of their TV time. Even among those who spend only a few hours a week on the ‘net, a quarter tell us it cuts into their TV viewing,” said Stanford researcher Lutz Erbring.

“Internet time is coming out of time viewing television, but also at the expense of time people spend on the phone gabbing with family and friends or having a conversation with people in the room with them,” added Stanford researcher Norman Nie.

“This trend is likely to have a major impact on the economics of the media industry and—as recent developments suggest—may lead to further integration of media and information delivery technologies,” Nie said.

Nie predicted the trend toward social withdrawal will only increase as more and more people become accustomed to having the internet in their lives.

The Stanford survey echoed a study released in August 1998 by researchers at Carnegie Mellon University. That report found that people grew more depressed and lonely the more they used the internet.

Stanford University Institute for the Quantitative Study of Society
http://www.stanford.edu/group/siqss

Kaiser Family Foundation
http://www.kff.org/