Report: Computer Use Doesn't Stunt Middle Schooler Social Development

A working paper published by the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) has suggested that the availability of personal computers at home don't stunt the social development of students in grades 6–10 or displace their engagement in sports or clubs. A study of more than a thousand children in 15 different schools and five school districts in California found that they were more likely to report having access to a social networking site. However, they also reported spending more time communicating with friends and interacting with their friends in person.

The study was undertaken by Robert Fairlie, a professor in the Department of Economics at the University of California at Santa Cruz and a research associate with NBER, and Ariel Kalil, a professor in the Harris School of Public Policy at the University of Chicago.

The project took place in 2008-2009 and 2009-2010. All of the participants were attending schools in California's central valley. Although the schools were similar in size, student to teacher ratio, and female to male student ratio, they tended to be poorer and have a higher percentage of minority students than the state's averages.

Students filled out brief surveys about home computer ownership and usage at the beginning of the school years without being informed that the results would be used to determine eligibility for a free home computer. Just under a quarter of the students said they had no computer at home, "roughly comparable" to the national average of 27 percent.

Any child who reported not having a home computer on an in-class survey was eligible for the study. Among 1636 eligible students, 1123 returned consent forms signed by parents. Each were randomly assigned to the "treatment group," but computers were given to all of the eligible children after school principals raised concerns about the fairness of giving computers to a subset of kids. The "treatment" children received computers immediately; those in the control group had to wait until the end of the school year. The main outcomes were taken before the control children had their computers.

The machines didn't include internet access; students' families had to provide that themselves.

The social behavior examined four areas: computer-related behavior, social interactions with friends, participation in after-school activities and school participation and engagement. The assessment was done by questionnaire. Students answered questions about whether they'd ever shown a parent how to do something on the computer; whether they had a social networking page; whether in the past school year they'd ever been bullied, teased, or threatened online or by email; and whether in the past school year they'd ever received help on school assignments from other students, friends, or teachers by email, instant messaging or networking.

"Overall," the researchers reported, "we find no differences between the treatment and control groups. None of the differences are statistically significant or large in magnitude."

As they asserted, "Do computers inhibit children’s social development and lead to social isolation, or do they facilitate in-person interactions with friends and schoolmates? There is surprisingly little credible research addressing this question."

And, in fact, the report stated, because "treated children" were more likely to report using computers for communication and to have a social networking page, "we find evidence of small positive benefits to children's social development and no statistically significant evidence of negative effects."

The paper is available for online purchase for $5 on the NBER website here.

About the Author

Dian Schaffhauser is a former senior contributing editor for 1105 Media's education publications THE Journal, Campus Technology and Spaces4Learning.