Physical & Social Effects of Internet Use in Children

By Edward Mercer

Today's children have more access to the Internet and a greater understanding of how to use it.
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Between its 2005 and 2010 reports on childhood media use, the Kaiser Family Foundation recorded a nearly 17 percent increase in time devoted to media use by U.S. children between the ages of 8 and 18, driven primarily by a rapid proliferation of mobile devices. This increasing consumption of media by youth has led parents, sociologists and even government officials to question the physical and social effects of these activities, which are now displacing activities more traditionally associated with childhood. Internet use in particular – an important part of how children access media – presents a number of concerns for the well-being of today's youth in a new media landscape.

Physical Risks

A report released by the British research firm ChildWise found that UK children spent nearly one hour and 50 minutes online every day – in addition to two hours and 40 minutes spent in front of the television. These figures, comparable to the Kaiser Family Foundation's U.S. findings, reveal that children are spending a large and growing percentage of their leisure time devoted to sedentary activities like Internet use. Such sedentary activities can lead to obesity and inadequate muscular development in early childhood, while extremely heavy computer use is also associated with repetitive stress disorders like carpal tunnel syndrome.

Social Risks

While most research shows that moderate Internet use and game playing is benign, very high use that replaces childhood social interactions can lead to an increase in loneliness and depression. Viewing violent or sexually explicit content on a regular basis can also contribute to increased aggressiveness, indifference toward suffering and intimacy or an inability to differentiate real life from simulation. The paradox is that much of the time youth spend online is spent "socializing" on social media and chat programs, but the lack of physical feedback on online media may not serve to develop social skills, boundaries and emotional intelligence.

Cognitive Risks

Time spent on the Internet can be a distraction from educational activities for children, while the availability of websites designed for cheating and plagiarism can also interfere with academic goals. On a more basic level, however, the sheer volume of information available on the Internet could interfere with childhood cognitive development, especially because so little of that information is moderated and very young children may not yet be able to evaluate the credibility of sources. An excess of information – especially contradictory information – is frequently linked to psychological conditions like stress and fatigue.

Positive Effects

Although the risks are considerable and further study is clearly necessary, the dangers of Internet use among children should not completely overshadow the potential benefits. Particularly when Internet technology is used in moderation and responsibly, the Web gives children access to an enormous collection of academic resources, can contribute to the development of fine motor skills and hand-eye coordination through computer manipulation, and can even serve to develop concentration and critical thinking skills as children learn to discriminate and filter information. As long as they don't replace physical social interactions, online social applications can also complement a healthy social life.