Press Releases

11-05-2009 The Children’s Digital Media Center Awarded Grant to Investigate How Video Games and Game Technologies Can be Designed to Improve Health

Research, supported by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, Explores a Wii Active Exergame Intervention for Low-Income African American Obese and Overweight Adolescents

Washington, D.C., November 5, 2009 – The Children’s Digital Media Center of Georgetown University announced today that it received a $138,847 grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF), through its Health Games Research national program, to explore how digital games can improve health. The Children’s Digital Media Center joins eight other research teams that were also awarded grants from Health Games Research to help strengthen the evidence base related to the development and use of health games.

Pediatric obesity rates have sharply risen in recent years, causing tremendous health problems including type II diabetes, cardiovascular risk factors, and asthma, along with psychological risks for depression. The Children’s Digital Media Center seeks to identify innovative ways that digital media can combat the obesity crisis to curb these health risks.

In this seven-month field experiment, obese and overweight urban high school students are playing the Wii Active exergame in an after school program either competitively against each other or cooperatively as a team. Both groups have the goal of lowering their body mass index (BMI). These groups are then compared to a control group. The study examines physiological, social, and cognitive outcomes of participants in all three groups to determine whether those who play Wii Active are more physically active; lose more weight; develop more self-esteem; have more friends; and have better memory, attention, and other cognitive skills than those assigned to the control group. Effects are expected to be most pronounced in the cooperative game.

Professor Sandra Calvert, Director of The Children’s Digital Media Center, and Dr. Anisha Abraham, Chief of the Section of Adolescent Medicine in Georgetown University Hospital, are the primary investigators who are examining the potential of this digital exergame to produce weight loss in overweight and obese adolescents. Professor Calvert and Dr. Abraham are joined by Dr. Kirsten Hawkins, Assistant Chief of the Section of Adolescent Medicine in Georgetown University Hospital and doctoral student Amanda Exner of the Georgetown University Department of Psychology. The Woodson Adolescent Wellness Center, under the direction of Coleen DeFlorimonte Lucas, partners with the research team to recruit high school students attending Woodson Senior High School in Ward 7 of Washington, D.C.

“We are honored to be part of the cadre of scholars funded by Robert Wood Johnson who are examining the potential of digital games to improve children’s health and well being,” said Professor Calvert. “If our approach is successful, we can guide the creation of digital games that youth enjoy playing to help turn around the obesity crisis that threatens their health and well being throughout their life spans.”

“Today as many as one-third of all American teens are obese or overweight and as such obesity poses serious physical and psychological problems for the health of our teenagers,” says Dr Abraham. “As a pediatrician, I see the importance of discovering sustainable ways to get kids to practice healthy lifestyles. The study seeks to examine whether exergames can provide a creative way to engage teens in fun, motivating exercise, and become one important step towards tackling the obesity epidemic.”

“Video games can provide a great, interactive platform for engaging both the mind and the body,” says Lucas. “Their popularity, particularly among adolescents makes them a great tool for engaging obese and overweight youth in physical activity. I look forward to seeing the outcomes of this exciting investigation.”

Health Games Research is supported by an $8.25 million grant from RWJF’s Pioneer Portfolio, which funds innovative projects that may lead to breakthrough improvements in the future of health and health care. The national program, which provides scientific leadership and conducts, supports and disseminates research to improve the quality and impact of health games, is headquartered at the University of California, Santa Barbara. It is directed by Debra Lieberman, Ph.D., communication researcher in the university’s Institute for Social, Behavioral, and Economic Research and a leading expert in the research and design of interactive media for learning and health behavior change. The grants were awarded under the program’s second funding round to develop and test principles of health game design, to help advance this emerging field.

“Digital games are interactive and experiential, and so they can engage people in powerful ways to enhance learning and health behavior change, especially when they are designed on the basis of well-researched strategies,” said Lieberman. “The studies funded by Health Games Research will provide cutting-edge, evidence-based strategies that designers will be able to use in the future to make their health games more effective.”

The Children’s Digital Media Center is one of the nine organizations to receive a grant during this second round of Health Games Research funding. Health Games Research investigates games that engage players in physical activity and/or improve players’ healthy lifestyles and self-care, with an eye toward identifying game design elements that contribute to improved health behaviors and outcomes. In May 2008, Health Games Research awarded more than $2 million in grants to support 12 research teams in its first funding round.

As The Children’s Digital Media Center and the other eight new grantees work on their projects, Health Games Research will provide guidance, technical assistance and research resources.

For more information visit:


About The Children’s Digital Media Center

The Children’s Digital Media Center (CDMC) is a multi-university consortium uniting a national community of scholars, researchers, educators, policy-makers, and industry professionals in a community whose goal is to improve the digital media environment in which children live and learn. For more information, visit htpp://


About Health Games Research

Health Games Research, a national program of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s (RWJF) Pioneer Portfolio, supports outstanding research that explores processes of learning and behavior change with health games. Its grantees offer bold thinking and innovative approaches to improve the design of future health games and to advance the research in this field. For more information, visit

About the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation

The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation focuses on the pressing health and health care issues facing our country. As the nation’s largest philanthropy devoted exclusively to improving the health and health care of all Americans, the Foundation works with a diverse group of organizations and individuals to identify solutions and achieve comprehensive, meaningful and timely change. The Foundation’s Pioneer Portfolio supports innovative ideas and projects that may trigger important breakthroughs in health and health care. Projects in the Pioneer Portfolio are future-oriented and look beyond conventional thinking to explore solutions at the cutting edge of health and health care. For more information, visit

Archives of Press Releases

02-17-2005 Research Examines Early Childhood Computer Use
02-17-2005 Study Looks at Teens and Movie Heroes
02-11-2005 Children, TV, Computers and More Media: New Research Shows Pluses , Minuses
Spring, 2002 Calvert Gets NSF Grant for Study of Children and Media

Research Examines Early Childhood Computer Use

Although 77 percent of children have used a computer by the time they are six years old, a socioeconomic and racial “digital divide” affects early childhood access to computers and the Internet, according to new research from Georgetown University’s Children’s Digital Media Center (CDMC). In addition, a CDMC study on early childhood interaction with computers found that over time, children were most attentive to interactive computer stories when they controlled the mouse, but user control did not translate into better learning.

“As very young children develop in this world of new, emerging technologies it is essential that researchers monitor the role of these technologies and their impact on children’s learning and development,” said Sandra Calvert, professor of psychology and director of CDMC. “These two studies present valuable information that contribute to our understanding of early childhood use of computers.”

In the first study, researchers led by Calvert looked at computer use in children who were from 6-months to 6-years of age. They examined variables such as age, gender, ethnicity, income, parental education and family structure patterns in relation to children’s access to and use of computers.

Early Childhood Computer Use

The parents surveyed reported that very young children who had access to computers were using them: 21 percent of children two and younger, 58 percent of 3- to 4-year olds, and 77 percent of 5- to 6-year olds with computers in the home had used them. Children who had used computers first did so on a parent’s lap around age 2 ½ and used computers independently by 3 ½ years of age. On average, children used a mouse to point and click by age 3 ½.

Researchers also found that young children had considerable control of their interactions with computers. Of children ages 6-months to 6-years old who had used a computer, 70 percent or more could do so without sitting on a parent’s lap and 86 percent or more could use a mouse. Nearly 50 percent of children who had used a computer could turn one on by themselves and insert a CD-ROM; the likelihood of doing so increased with age.

In addition, 42 percent of children ages 6-months to 6-years with computer experience visited Web sites for kids. Approximately 21 percent sent e-mail with the help of a parent; less than 2 percent sent e-mail on their own.

Survey results showed that the vast majority of young children were not frequent computer users. On a typical day only 18.3 percent of 6-month to 6-year old children used a computer. Of those children, the average amount of time spent on the computer was one hour.

Researchers also learned that computers are becoming an integral part of U.S. households, with many parents supporting early childhood computer use. Fifteen percent of parents surveyed said that their child spent time playing computer games. Children who played computer games did so for an average of 51 minutes. Nearly 7 percent of parents reported that their child used the computer for something other than games. A majority of parents — 72 percent — reported that computer use is helpful and parents whose children spent the most time playing computer games were more likely to perceive the computer as beneficial to their child’s learning.

Socioeconomic Statistics

In addition to observing early childhood computer use, researchers examined the variables of parental educational attainment, income, marital status and racial/ethnic background for survey participants.

Nearly 75 percent of respondents reported having a computer in the home. Of those owning computers, 36 percent owned more than one and 88 percent reported having Internet access in the home. Despite these statistics, CDMC researchers found evidence of a socioeconomic and racial “digital divide” in early childhood access to computers and the Internet. In particular, researchers found that Latino households were the most disadvantaged in computer and Internet access.

Researchers found that families who reported higher incomes, higher educational levels, and who reported being married were more likely to own computers and to have Internet access. Latino families were less likely to report owning a computer and both Latinos and African-Americans were less likely to report having Internet access regardless of income, education and family structure.

Among the entire sample, the likelihood of a child ever having used a computer increased with age, household income and parental education. Of families with computers in the home, African-American parents were more likely than Caucasian or Latino parents to report that their children had used a computer.

Researchers did not find a gender divide in early childhood computer use. Boys and girls began to use computers around the same age and were equally likely to have played computer games. The only gender difference researchers observed was that boys were more likely than girls to be able to load a CD-ROM by themselves.

Survey participants included a national sample of 1,065 U.S. parents of children ages 6-months to 6-years. Parents were contacted via telephone using a list-assisted random-digit dialing methodology. The target child was either the youngest or oldest child who was 6-months to 6-years of age. Interviews were conducted by Princeton Survey Research Associates from April 11 to June 9, 2003 and consisted of 59 questions about the target child and his or her access to and use of media. The Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation provided funding for the study.

Effect of Computer User Control on Attention and Learning

In a separate study, CDMC researchers examined the effect of user control on children’s attention to and learning of content presented in a computer story. The researchers found that over time, children’s attention to interactive media remained high when they controlled the mouse, but user control did not affect retention of the story content.

The study examined the effects of user control on 53 preschool-aged children’s comprehension of content presented in an online storybook. The story was presented to the children four times in one of four scenarios: a) an adult controlled the mouse and read the story as the child observed; b) the adult and child took turns interacting with the story; c) the child controlled the mouse as he or she interacted with the program; d) a no-exposure session where the child never saw or interacted with the computer program.

Researchers found that when children controlled the mouse and progressed through the story, there was never a significant drop in attention. By contrast, children’s attention declined over the four sessions, particularly when the adult controlled the mouse. Children retained the same amount of content no matter who controlled the session.

In addition, researchers found that boys remembered visually presented content more than girls, and boys made more efforts to control the activity than girls did, particularly when adults were controlling the progress of the story.

“These results suggest that control is an engagement feature that pulls children into an activity,” said Calvert. “The study presents a lesson that may influence constructive early adult-child interactions with educational computer software.”

Findings from both studies were published in the January 2005 special issue of American Behavioral Scientist edited by CDMC researchers Ellen Wartella of the University of California at Riverside, Elizabeth Wandewater of the University of Texas at Austin and Kaiser Family Foundation Vice President Victoria Rideout.

Study Looks at Teens and Movie Heroes

Violence in the media and its long-term effect on viewers is under constant observation by policymakers, parents and industry experts. In a new study from Georgetown University’s Children’s Digital Media Center (CDMC), researchers take a closer look at media heroes who commit justified acts of aggression and examine the specific character traits viewers admire and find worthy of imitation. Results indicate that viewers admire the positive qualities heroes exhibit, and the more viewers comprehend a movie’s plot the more likely they are to identify with the heroic characters in it.

“These findings suggest the importance of a mature understanding of narratives by those who view them,” said CDMC Director and Professor of Psychology Sandra Calvert. “This is a serious policy issue when one considers the number of youth who attend action-adventure movies at theatres or who view them as DVD, videotape and eventual television fare in their homes.”

Researchers led by Calvert conducted a study involving 366 high school and college age students from two cultures living with fears of external threats, the U.S. and Taiwan. Students viewed the DVD “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” in their native languages and then completed a questionnaire about the film. Researchers examined age, gender, cultural background and plot comprehension in relation to students’ identification with media heroes. Results are published in the November-December 2004 special issue of the Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology, co-edited by Calvert and University of California at Los Angeles CDMC researcher Patricia Greenfield.

Study results indicate that both U.S. and Taiwanese students identified with heroes’ positive character traits rather than qualities such as aggression or vengeance. Adolescents reported perceiving media heroes as being more compassionate, as using their “heads before their swords,” and as being in control of their lives. Teenagers did not perceive heroes as being evil or as seekers of revenge. Students who considered characters as heroic also viewed them as role models. U.S. students identified with heroic characters and heroic ideals more than Taiwanese students did.

In addition, researchers found that viewer plot comprehension influenced whether students identified more with heroic characters or villains. Students with better plot comprehension were more likely to identify with heroic characters and those who had a poor understanding of the narrative were more likely to identify with the villain.

“Heroic narratives are embedded in cultures throughout the world,” writes Calvert in the journal. “How narratives present, modify and use this formula is integral to the socialization of our youth, to the character of our nation, and to our views about the potential for good and evil in other people as well as the moral struggles we face within ourselves.”


Children, TV, Computers and More Media: New Research Shows Pluses , Minuses

Benefits and problems are related to developmental stages, family context 

A consortium of researchers has reported that very young children’s interactions with TV and computers are a mixed bag of opportunities and cautions, while teenagers’ Internet use has changed so much that the myths of several years ago need to be debunked.

Said Amy Sussman, program manager for the National Science Foundation (NSF), which funds the five-site Children’s Digital Media Center (CDMC), “Reaping the benefits of various media while avoiding pitfalls is no easy task. Parents and policymakers need to inform their decisions about whether and how to guide their children’s media use through scientific knowledge. Different developmental stages call for different strategies. These and other research studies can help create needed guidance for children at all ages.”

Scientists affiliated with five locations of the center reported the results of 14 research studies in special issues of The American Behavioral Scientist and the Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology. Editors for the special issues included Sandra L. Calvert from Georgetown University, who heads up the CDMC; Patricia M. Greenfield, who leads the research at UCLA; Elizabeth A. Vandewater, who heads the research at the University of Texas-Austin, and Ellen Wartella, who leads the research at the University of California-Riverside. Barbara J. O’Keefe, who heads the research at Northwestern University, contributed to the research articles.

In the case of very young children – up to 6 years old – research fills an important gap in our knowledge of how TV and computer use affect these developing human beings. Several individual studies support the 1999 recommendation by the American Academy of Pediatrics that parents do not expose children to electronic screens until they are 2 years old.

One important distinction is between “background TV” and “foreground TV” – that is, TV programs that are playing when young children are around (for example, because the TV is always on in the house) or TV programs designed for young children (for example, Teletubbies). Over a third of the households with children from birth to 6 years old had the TV on most or all of the time, in a study reported by Vandewater and colleagues. Children in these “heavy-television households” watched TV more and read less than other children. In addition, research summarized by Daniel R. Anderson and Tiffany A. Pempek indicates very little evidence that children younger than 2 years old learn much from even so-called “educational” programs and videos, and, furthermore, that background TV may be associated with poorer cognitive outcomes.

In the study led by Vandewater and funded by NSF and the Kaiser Foundation, two-thirds of the parents limited the time their children from birth to 6 years old were allowed to watch TV, but more (88 percent) regulated what programs their children could watch. Children whose TV time was limited tended to watch less TV, as one might expect – but children who watch only certain programs tended to watch with their parents and to spend more time playing outdoors.

Contrary to most people’s expectations, family stress does not necessarily affect how well children learn from TV’s educational programs. Not enough money, family conflicts, and maternal depression all take their toll on the home’s learning environment. But only family conflict disrupts both parenting practices and educational television use. Said Vandewater, “These results suggest that families who are stressed may find that pointing children towards educational shows helps everybody cope while the child learns.”

Children use computers at very young ages – 21 percent of children 2 years and younger, 58 percent of 3- to 4-year-olds, and 77 percent of 5- to 6-year-olds, in a study led by Calvert and funded by NSF and the Kaiser Foundation. According to their parents, children began to use computers on their parents’ laps at about 2-and-a-half years and independently at about 3-and-a-half years.

The socioeconomic and racial “digital divide” has persisted. Children in more affluent, better-educated families were more likely to have used a computer. Latino children were less likely than white children to have used a computer.

However, the researchers did not find a gender divide at these young ages. Boys and girls begin to use computers at about the same age.

Another study, also led by Calvert, undermined the common notion that children will learn more if they can control the situation in which educational content is presented. Although children’s attention dropped when adults controlled the situation, particularly on repeated material, overall attention levels were high (often more than 90 percent), and children remembered the same amount of content no matter who controlled the session.

What happens when children become teenagers?

Research findings reveal that teens’ Internet use focuses on identity, sexuality, social attitudes, and values – issues perennially associated with the teenage years. Online dangers include pervasive pornography and other sexually explicit material, disembodied strangers who may pursue others or express hate and racism, and rampant commercialism. However, teenagers also find information they may be hesitant to seek elsewhere, good communication channels with their friends, and advice and support.

Kaveri Subrahmanyam, Greenfield, and Brendesha Tynes found that teens use Internet exchanges to “pair off” (exit from a chat room to engage in one-on-one instant messaging) by providing “a/s/l” (age, sex, and location) information. For example, one chat room participant’s message said, “if there r any m/13/Tx in here if so im me” (that is, any 13-year-old males from Texas send me an instant message). Pairing off in this way allows teens to socialize in a relatively anonymous and gender-equal medium.

Other CDMC studies of teenagers and the Internet cover sexual information and pornography, race as a topic of discussion, teenage activities online (instant messaging with friends tops the list) and advice for parents. The press release from UCLA (see link) provides more detail on these studies.

Movies influence teenagers as well. Calvert, Katherine J. Murray, and Emily E. Conger studied U.S. and Taiwanese teens’ reactions to the popular movie “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.” Teenagers from both cultures who understood the movie identified with characters who showed compassion and thought before using force. Those who did not understand the narrative tended to identify with the villain, Jade Fox – a finding that has important implications for age recommendations or standards.

O’Keefe and Zehnder’s study of video games emphasizes the ways in which game developers control the player’s point of view. A player seeks to master the game by overcoming resistance, so designers need to both challenge the player and provide accommodation through how much a player can see and know. Three-dimensional games, for example, are better adapted to humans than 2-dimensional games. Moreover, a game can provide one of several points of view, both limiting and enabling a player.

Taken together, the studies conducted by CDMC researchers advance the scientific knowledge of how children and teenagers use and are affected by various media – TV, computers, the Internet, movies, and video games.


Calvert Gets NSF Grant for Study of Children and Media

Psychology Professor Sandra Calvert and a team of researchers were awarded a five-year, $2.45 million grant last semester from the National Science Foundation to study how new interactive media affect children’s learning.

Calvert hopes to gain a greater understanding of how interactive digital media experiences relate to children’s long-term social adjustment, academic achievements and identity construction. The research also will determine what kinds of interactive digital technologies affect learning.

“At a broader cultural level, this program of research has the potential to inform policy decisions as well as impact the kinds of digital programs that are available for children to use,” Calvert said. “Too often media policies and children’s programs are created without a sound database to inform those decisions. Our research will facilitate the work of policymakers and computer programmers who seek to create a world where delightful, quality interactive digital media for children flourishes.

An increasing amount of children’s media experience involves digital interactive entertainment technologies, including the Internet, Calvert says. Knowing how to use these interactive technologies will be a necessary skill for the 21st century, she adds, and may be a gateway to studying science and technology.

The Georgetown-based Children’s Digital Media Centers also will include two centers at the University of Texas at Austin, a center at Northwestern University and a center at the University of California at Los Angeles. The interdisciplinary team will involve researchers from the fields of psychology, communications, human development, sociology, anthropology and medicine.

The newly funded project will include collaborative center work on Calvert’s already-developed research project called TVTOWN. In TVTOWN, children construct their own identities and unique personality characteristics and then interact with Calvert’s staff of researchers or with other children online.

Georgetown researchers also will look at how interactive online computer stories and games affect preschooler’s learning. While many think interactivity helps children learn, Calvert says researchers don’t yet clearly understand how that process happens.

American Psychology Monograph Article