Physical and Social Effects of Internet Use in Children

The side effects of constant media exposure in children continues to be a growing public health concern.

In the past 20 years, Internet usage among children has steadily increased. More than two-thirds of 8-year-old children go online each day, according to a study by the nonprofit Joan Ganz Cooney Center. The relationships between Internet use and physical or social aftereffects are complicated, but some facts are starting to reveal themselves.

Physical Health

As children spend more time in front of computer monitors, they typically spend less time in physical activities.

The sedentary lifestyle associated with computer usage can be a prime risk factor for obesity, according to clinical psychologist Kaleyvani Geeseeny Sawmy, author of "The Impact of Internet Use on Children/Adolescents." Furthermore, computer use is linked to both repetitive motion injuries like carpal tunnel and eye strain. For some children, the rapidly flashing images of certain websites and games can trigger epileptic seizures, according to authors of "The Impact of Home Computer Use on Children’s Activities and Development," published by Princeton University.

Cognitive Development

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Children with easy access to the Internet may become less able to separate fact from fiction. The Internet has no filter and no peer review, so anyone can publish anything they want.

Educators also worry that the informal communication common to chat rooms has carried over into academic settings. Students facing challenging homework tasks and essays are becoming more likely to plagiarize from Internet sources. The multitasking that many children engage in while online reduces attention span, making intense concentration on a single task more difficult.

Depression and Isolation

Increased Internet use among children may result in feelings of loneliness and depression, warns Geeseeny Sawmy. Whether time spent online is a cause or effect of these negative feelings is unclear.

However, more online time does result in less time spent with family and friends or working on hobbies. The rapid and instant nature of Internet stimulation alters the way a young person sees the world, leading to more boredom with everyday life.

Social Maladaption

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Desensitization to violent stimuli is one potential consequence of excessive Internet usage in children, warns the City of Manchester Health Department. Both violent and pornographic imagery can fundamentally alter a developing child's perspective on the world.

Child pornography is especially disturbing and may forever change a child's understanding of human sexuality. The violent images, foul language and lack of social rules common to the Internet do not prepare anyone, much less a growing child, for interaction in the real world.

Positive Effects

Online games and activities can enhance teamwork and creativity. The Internet's wealth of information can add to the child's store of knowledge, provided that the child has learned to discriminate between good and bad information sources.

Many studies have demonstrated that children in households with computers perform better academically than peers who do not have ready access to computers. Interacting with computers has been shown to improve both visual intelligence and hand-eye coordination.