Press Release: New Study Shows Computers Make Kids Smarter, Fatter

A newly published study by researchers at the City University of New York Graduate Center on the effects of home computing on young children finds that those who use computers at home do better on several cognitive tests, but also indicates that children who use home computers for more than 8 hours per week have a significantly higher body mass index than non-users of the same age.

The research, which was funded by the National Science Foundation, was undertaken by Professor Paul Attewell, along with Graduate Center colleagues Professor Juan Battle and doctoral student Belkis Suazo-Garcia. The researchers analyzed time diary data obtained from a nationally representative sample of 1680 school children, aged 4 to 13. The diaries recorded children’s activities at ten minute intervals for two days per week. The children also took a series of age-standardized cognitive tests. Information was also collected on the characteristics of the children’s families and on the children’s weight and height.

The researchers found different effects depending on whether a child was a moderate user (under 8 hours per week) or a heavy user (8 or more hours per week) of home computers. Moderate computer users scored significantly higher on three tests of cognitive functioning (letter-word recognition, reading comprehension, and mathematics calculations), than children with similar home backgrounds who did not use a home computer. Moderate users also scored higher on a child’s measure of self-esteem. Children who were moderate users of home computers were not different in terms of Body Mass Index (BMI) than non-computer users. (The analyses controlled for family income, parents education, parent’s reading comprehension score, race, and poverty status.)

The pattern for heavy users of home computers, who constituted only 2% of the schoolchildren in the sample, was different than that for moderate computer users. Heavy computer users did not have higher scores on any cognitive measures or on self-esteem. However, children who used home computers for 8 or more hours per week had a considerably higher Body Mass Index, than either non-users or moderate users. They were, on average, 12 pounds heavier than children of equivalent height and age.

The researchers explored whether the BMI finding was due to less exercise. They found that heavy use of home computers was associated with less time spent in outside play and sports. Children who were heavy computer users spent about 3 hours less per week in outdoor play and sports than kids who didn’t have home computers. (Moderate users of home computers spent as much time outdoors as non-users.) But this was not the main cause of the association between heavy use and body overweight, since heavy computer users had a significantly higher body mass index, even after controlling statistically for their time spent in exercise.

The results were published in the September 2003 issue of the sociological journal Social Forces (UNC Press). 

The Graduate Center is the doctorate-granting institution of The City University of New York. The only consortium of its kind in the nation, The Graduate Center draws its faculty of more than 1,600 members mainly from the CUNY senior colleges and cultural and scientific institutions throughout New York City.

Established in 1961, The Graduate Center has grown to an enrollment of about 3,900 students in 30 doctoral programs and six master's degree programs in the humanities, social sciences, and sciences. The Graduate Center also houses 28 research centers and institutes, administers the CUNY Baccalaureate Program, and offers a wide range of continuing education and cultural programs of interest to the general public.

According to the most recent National Research Council report, more than a third of The Graduate Center's rated Ph.D. programs rank among the nation's top 20 at public and private institutions, nearly a quarter are among the top ten when compared to publicly supported institutions alone, and more than half are among the top five programs at publicly supported institutions in the northeast.

Submitted on: OCT 1, 2003

Category: Center for Urban Research, Research Institute for the Study of Language in Urban Society (RISLUS), Press Room