Computer use and child outcomes


Dr. Audrey Light, Department of Economics
Rank at time of award: Professor


In 2000, almost two-thirds of American children ages 3-17 lived in a household with a computer and almost one-third accessed the internet at home (Newburger 2001).  Parents often state that  their primary reason for purchasing a computer and gaining internet access is to provide educational opportunities for their children and prepare them for the "information age" (Turow and Nir 2000). Although children are increasingly using computers at home and at school, there is little systematic research on how these activities affect their development. The links between computer use and academic performance, behavioral problems, obesity, and other measures of childhood health and well-being remain largely unexplored-in particular, we have no evidence on the causal effect of computers on these outcomes. In the proposed study, we plan to fill this gap in the literature. Our specific objectives include the following:

1) Although more children have access to computers today than a decade ago, there exists a "digital divide:" many children, particularly those from low income households, do not have computers and/or internet access (DeBell and Chapman 2001). We plan to assess the "digital divide" by investigating the link between computer use (both at home and at school) and such characteristics as race, ethnicity, family income, and household composition.
2) We will determine whether  computer use  displaces other  activities  such  as  television viewing, reading, and sports-all of which have important direct and indirect effects on child development. There is  limited evidence that children who  use computers watch  less television than nonusers (Stanger 1998; Suzuki, Hashimoto and Ishii 1997), but more evidence is needed on how computers affect children's time use.
3) Parents and policy makers are uncertain whether computers have positive effects on child outcomes-e.g., by improving academic performance--or negative effects--e.g.,  by leading to obesity.  We will identify the causal effect of computer use on a range of important child outcomes, from mathematics and reading test scores, to an index of behavioral problem, to Body Mass Index. 
4) Children use computers for homework, games, correspondence, online "chats," and many other purposes.  We will determine whether the effects of computer use on time allocation and various academic, behavioral, and health outcomes depend on how computers are used.