Clearly, a true experiment would help clear the matter up: take 1,000 middle-schoolers, give 500 of them a computer, and see what happens over the course of a school year. Well, darned if someone didn’t do that (Fairlie & Kalil, 2017).
The experimenters administered a survey at the start and the end of the school year. They also had access to administrative data regarding school participation.
It should be noted that children in the control group did have access to computer time at school and elsewhere, and some families purchased computers on their own during the year. The researchers tracked these confounds as best they could. Children given the computers did indeed spend more computer time per week than control kids.
Friends: The results showed that kids given computers did not report communicating with or hanging out with their friends less…in fact, they reported spending more time with friends.
Social groups: Giving kids a computer had no impact on the probability that they would be part of a sports team, club, or music group.
School participation: There was also no effect of home computers on the number of days absent from school (or tardy), or days suspended.
Competing activities: Self-reported TV time, homework time and leisure reading were unaffected.
Social networking: Children with a home computer were more likely to have a social network page and reported spending more time on social networks. There was also a statistically nonsignificant increase in the probability of reporting cyberbullying, a result that is difficult to interpret because the overall mean was so low (less than 1%).
A few caveats of these conclusions should be borne in mind. First, the study only lasted for one school year. Second, having a smart phone, with the constant access it affords, may yield different results. Third, children were given a computer, but not Internet access. Some kids had it anyway, but the more profound effects may come from online access.
All that said, I am less frightened than some by the threat that digital technologies will eat children’s minds, or making them anti-social zombies. I wrote The Reading Mind before this study was published, but as I put together the data, I suggested that digital activities were not replacing reading, and that’s true for two reasons. First, reading provides a different sort of pleasure than gaming or social networking. If you like reading, that pleasure is only available by reading. Second, digital technology has not reduced reading for most kids because most kids don’t read anyway.
This later point is the most salient to me, and has most influenced how I raise my own kids. It’s not that most digital technologies are so terrible, but most of what my kids can do online is less preferable to me than what they can do offline. I’d rather they make something, take a bike ride, or read a book. But if they horse around on the computer, that’s no worse (or better) than watching Say Yes to the Dress, my ten-year-old's latest television infatuation.
My real concern about digital technology use in teens is hard to quantify. When I was a teen I, like most, probably assigned too much value to the opinions of my peers. They necessarily stopped influencing me when I got off the school bus, and I was influenced mostly by my parents and two sisters. I don’t relish the thought of children taking their peer groups home with them in their pockets, influencing them 24/7, and diminishing the impact of their families.