Children and computers

Exclusive research for Spotlight by NOP Family demonstrates the extraordinary impact of the screen in all its forms on Britain’s children. It is hardly surprising to find that virtually all – 95 per cent – of seven to 17-year-olds have watched television in the past week, but more than eight out of ten have also used screen-based technology for playing games, accessing information, word-processing or calculation.

To put it in context, 12 per cent more children have used a screen interactively than have watched a video recording of a film or television programme.

Games are the most popular screen use. Seven out of ten children had played some sort of video game in the week before the research was carried out, compared with half who had used a computer for a non-games function. The percentage of children playing video games was consistent in all age groups, unlike non-games use, which increases from four out of ten under-11s to six out of ten older children.

Although the majority of the most popular games are available in games console and PC formats, consoles have a considerably larger market. Over three-quarters of gamers – 78 per cent – had played on a dedicated games machine, such as Nintendo or Sony PlayStation, compared with 57 per cent on a PC. But the use and ownership of consoles, although widespread, has a far more restricted appeal than computers in general. There is no difference between girls’ and boys’ levels of computer use for non-games, and almost as many girls as boys play games on a PC. However, boys outnumber girls two to one in their use of games consoles.

Games consoles also have more attraction for children from down-market households. Only half the children from AB households – the professional and senior managerial grade – had played with a games console in the past week, compared with nearly six out of ten from other classes.

But it is not the video games that lack appeal or exposure to upmarket children – in fact levels are slightly higher among ABC1s than among C2DEs – merely that the means of playing them differs. Six out of ten AB children had played a game on a personal computer, compared with 44 per cent of C1s (white-collar workers) and a third of CDEs, the blue-collar and unskilled grades. Most AB computer users, at 85 per cent, have computer access at home, compared with two-thirds of C1s but only four out of ten C2DEs.

This preference – presumably led by parental anxieties – for computers rather than games consoles inevitably leads to AB children having greater exposure to non-games computer experience.

Two-thirds of these upmarket children had used a computer for other functions than gaming in the past week, well ahead of the 55 per cent of C1s and less than half of the C2DEs.

Considering a Nintendo console with six games currently retails at 259, and a PC with a CD-Rom facility can be bought for 400, this indicates that the market is being driven by preference and interest, as well as by financial considerations.

The education system, however, is compensating to some extent for the bias in home access. Three-quarters of all users employ a PC at school, compared with six out of ten at home, and a quarter at friends’ or relatives’ houses.

There is virtually no difference in school use across the social classes, or between age groups. Games are far more home-centred, with 84 per cent playing in their own homes, nearly twice as many as at other peoples’ houses.

Computer functions used

Word-processing is the most widespread use for computers among children; seven out of ten users had written an essay, project or a letter on a PC; 55 per cent stored information or things that they had written on PCs; nearly as many – 49 per cent – used them to look up or find information from sources other than the Internet. Mathematical or scientific functions are far less common; only three out of ten used a computer for sums or calculations.

There is no difference between boys and girls in types of computer use, but as children get older, they tend to use more functions. The importance of the home computer is highlighted by the far higher proportions of AB children making use of a computer to look up information and for calculation.

Eighteen per cent of users – 11 per cent of all children under 17 – have used the Internet. This proportion is almost exactly the same as adult use of the Internet, examined in Spotlight earlier this year. Children’s use of the Internet is even more dictated by the socio-economic status of their parents than normal computer use.

A third of AB children have used the Internet, twice as many as from any other social class, which seems to imply that home access is currently the main conduit.

Games software

The market for games is both crowded and fragmented. More than 40 games were named as being in the current repertoire, but only ten were played by more than six per cent or more of gamers.

Although the most popular game is Tomb Raider, played by 19 per cent of all gamers, screen-based games show a strong bias towards football, with Fifa 1997 played by 16 per cent, Road To The World Cup by 13 per cent, and Championships Manager by five per cent. Super Mario was played by 15 per cent; Worms 2 and Destruction Derby are the only other games with more than ten per cent of the action.

Virtually all the games are played by far more boys than girls. Only Super Mario and Croc appeal equally to both sexes; Worms 2 and Tomb Raider – in spite of its well-publicised female protagonist – are nearly twice as likely to be played by male as female gamers. The other games are even more exclusive.

Given girls’ equal use of computers, and their relatively high involvement in gaming, the games software designers seem to be missing out on a massive market by failing to design games with female appeal.

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