One of the great old wife's tales of the 21st century is the idea that computers and the Internet are rotting out the brains of our little ones.
Sandra Hofferth at the University of Maryland (right) believed it. Then she did the research, which she reported to the journal Child Development. (Picture from the University of Maryland School of Public Health. Go Terrapins.)
Turns out the problem isn't that bad.
There has been a slight dip in the test scores of white males, she writes, possibly owing to random Web surfing. But white girls, and black kids of both sexes, are doing better since the new tools became mainstream.
The subjects in this case were 3,563 children, collected by the University of Michigan in 1997, with demographics (sex, race, income) that are representative of the nation as a whole.
The parents compiled diaries of daily activities, and the main survey was followed-up in 2003 and 2008. Intelligence tests were given to over 1,000 kids in both 1997 and 2003.
In spite of concern by parents about too much screen time leading to increased isolation
from peers, to increased aggressive behavior, or to neglect of schoolwork, most of the fears
were not realized. The reading and math achievement of white girls who increased their
computer use between 1997 and 2003 and the reading scores of black boys who increased
their computer use improved. Additionally, playing more on the computer was associated
with reduced withdrawal problems for white girls.
The assumption all this stuff is nasty is based on the idea that new media displaces old media. The fear is especially acute with video games, which are said to increase aggression.
"Unexpectedly, no positive or negative associations with achievement for boys were found" who played video games, Hoggerth found.There was a slight increase in aggression among those boys, but among girls video games led to greater self-esteem, and black girls who played actually improved their math skills.
Naturally, this did not quiet the complainers. The Washington Post dutifully quoted parents who remained fearful after being told the results. They can't be bored, and they can't know their own thoughts, ran the complaints.
Maybe. But Hofferth found that if that's the case, the TV is still the villain. She found kids were still spending 13 hours in front of the TV each week in 2008, against 6-10 hours on PCs and game systems combined.
Here's what I think, based on watching my own kids grow up over the last two decades, and living on a block that now has a whole new crop of little ones.
The problem, if it exists, isn't with kids using programs. It's with kids being programmed by their parents, every minute scheduled, with no time spent in free play outside. It's quiet here most afternoons, and on weekends, quieter than it was when my own kids were little.
Computers are safe, but a skinned knee only hurts for a while.