Why Kids Don't Need Computers

Don't feel guilty about not buying your toddler a Pentium, a new book argues: You may be doing the kid a favor.

Published August 1, 1998 7:00PM (EDT)

| When my soon-to-be 4-year-old daughter changed preschools a few months ago, I worried about the new school's lack of computers. The old school had a Macintosh, and the kids would spend half an hour or so each day messing around with learning software programs and sending their parents unintelligible e-mail. But the new school was far from the computing cutting edge, and that made me feel guilty: Was I hindering my daughter's ability to successfully compete in the 21st century?

I certainly wasn't helping out at home. You might think that someone as obsessed with technology as a professional technology reporter would make sure his kids were programming in C++ before kindergarten. But in fact I don't own a single "learning software" program. To my enduring shame, I'd much rather kick back and watch "The Simpsons" with my daughter than escort her through the interactive CD-ROM version of "Green Eggs and Ham."

Bad Daddy, my daughter might blurt. But maybe not. However unwittingly, however base my motives, by limiting my daughter's exposure to computers I may actually have been doing the right thing -- at least according to Jane Healy, author of "Failure to Connect: How Computers Affect Our Children's Minds -- for Better and Worse."

"Failure to Connect" is no neo-Luddite rant; instead, it's a must read for anyone who cares about kids and computers. Healy is an educator with decades of experience, and she has researched her topic to exhaustion. Demolishing the hype of what she calls "technology pushers," Healy delivers a hearty rebuttal to the conventional wisdom that declares that every child's classroom and bedroom should have its own computer. Not only is there scant evidence that computers actually enhance "learning" in the very young, she argues, but there is good reason to believe that too much computer time can actively stunt the healthy development of a child's mind.

"Some of the most popular education software may even be damaging to creativity, attention, and motivation," she writes. Bold words, and not ones that the "edutainment" software industry wants to hear. But they're well worth saying. According to Healy, the market for edutainment programs for home use in the U.S. is growing by 20 to 30 percent a year. And just last year, school expenditures on technology reached $4.34 billion.

Meanwhile, music and art programs -- which, unlike computers, have been demonstrated to increase "intelligence" -- are constantly being defunded, class sizes continue to rise and underpaid teachers are expected to master nonstop waves of new technology with little technical support or training. What's wrong with this picture?

Healy's thesis is all the more compelling because she does believe that there is a place for computers in education, and she does cite examples where computers have been used effectively in schools. In essence, she argues that there is no need for children to spend significant time with computers until they're 10 or 11. Her research -- which includes personally visiting hundreds of schools that integrate computers into the curriculum, as well as a painstaking review of the available data collected on the subject -- indicates that older children have little trouble achieving computer literacy in a very short time, whether or not they attended computer-accessorized preschools. In fact, those children who spent too much time with computers at young ages may be less well-equipped to face the future.

"The brain undergoes certain 'critical' or 'sensitive' periods in both childhood and adolescence, when learning environments exert special kinds of effects and when certain types of activities and stimulation are most appropriate and necessary for the brain to reach its potential," writes Healy. "If we waste or subvert these developmental windows, the losses may be irrecoverable."

Healy bases her argument on the latest research on neuroanatomical development. At very young ages, the human brain structure is essentially malleable. Most children learn about the world from their physical interaction with it -- as anyone who has watched an 8-month-old child spend an hour playing with a frying pan can tell you. To replace that kind of vital experience of the real world with pointing and clicking on a two-dimensional computer screen may seriously impair brain development.

"The immature human brain neither needs nor profits from attempts to 'jump start' it," writes Healy, alluding indirectly to the name of one of the most popular children's software programs. "Simply selecting and watching a screen is a pallid substitute for real mental activity."

Too many kids' programs consist merely of rewarding children for clicking on an object with a cute animation or catchy sound. Children end up "pushing buttons like experimental rats" rather than gaining any real understanding of cause and effect. Even worse, in more advanced learning software programs, students are rewarded with games after solving a problem. Healy recounts several examples of classrooms where the students ended up spending far more time playing the games than working through the problems.

But, aggrieved parents might wonder, what about kids who are already spending too much time watching TV? Isn't it better for them to be interacting with a computer? Not necessarily, declares Healy. Children are particularly susceptible to vision problems and repetitive stress injuries brought about by too much computer exposure, she says. Additionally, she suggests, the "novel special effects" incorporated in state-of-the-art learning software can make computers even more "mind dulling" than TV: "With the computer, attention is easily transfixed to content unworthy of the attention it compels."

One could easily say the same about television of course -- but that would be missing the fundamental point of Healy's book: If you want your children to be smart, creative and well-prepared for the challenges of the future, spend more time with them.

"This 'halo effect' faith -- that the computer is somehow automatically better than television -- is unjustified. First of all, if your child is watching too much TV, the first thing to do is start applying some limits rather than adding yet another excuse to tune you out! Naturally, manufacturers would like to encourage parental guilt ( a psychologist friend calls guilt the 'maternal hormone'), but what should really make us feel uncomfortable is letting any kind of electronic device do our child-rearing and educating for us."

"In this consumerized hi-tech world, your time and attention are still worth more to your child than any equipment, no matter how glitzy," adds Healy. "Slow down, turn off the media, and spend some time just being together for a while."

Sound advice. And I think my daughter will appreciate it.

By Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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