U-Md. researcher links kids' computer use with test scores, behavior

By Donna St. George
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 15, 2010

A University of Maryland researcher has a message for parents who fret about how much time their preteen children spend on computers: Worry not.

In what researchers describe as one of the first long-term looks at the effects of media use during childhood, a study released Wednesday linked hours at the computer with achievement test scores and behavior and found little sign of harm for children ages 6 to 12 as they increased their screen time over a six-year period.

Moreover, the study found benefits for girls and black boys.

"Generally, adolescent achievement and adjustment showed benefits from the use of the computer, and it didn't have to be studying. It could be playing games," said Sandra L. Hofferth, a family science professor and director of the Maryland Population Research Center.

Hofferth's results, published in the journal Child Development, showed that African American boys' reading scores improved by four points, considered significant, as they increasingly logged more time on the computer.

Girls' achievement test scores for reading and math notched upward by a point. Socially, there was another positive effect: White girls were less likely to be withdrawn as they played more on the computer.

In 2008, children ages 10 to 12 were messaging, playing games, studying and surfing Web sites an average of 3.4 hours a week. Those ages 16 to 18 spent 6.3 hours a week at the keyboard that year.

The greatest increases in the six-year period of the study, which predated the rise of social networking among adolescents, were in time spent playing computer games. But computer use overall "involves problem-solving. It involves reading; it involves communication, and these are skills that help children," Hofferth said.

With children becoming computer-literate at increasingly younger ages, Hofferth said, she set out to learn whether screen time leaves children more isolated and withdrawn and whether it leads to declines in achievement because it replaces time spent that could be spent studying, reading, taking part in sports and playing outdoors.

"Parents are seeing the increase in their children's screen time and they always ask, 'Well, how much time should they be spending?' " she said. "I was trying to find out, 'Is this really terrible for children?' " She said she expected to document negative effects but concluded that increasing time on the computer did not mean less reading and studying.

Only white boys showed a decline in test scores -- small but statistically significant -- that Hofferth interpreted as resulting from too much surfing the Web. "Too much just random surfing isn't necessarily good," she said. "However, playing games and studying are more focused, and they have a positive effect."

Sandra L. Calvert, a psychology professor at Georgetown University and director of the Children's Digital Media Center, said the findings about improved scores for African American boys are important. "I think these data are promising in terms of what computers can do for kids," she said.

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