by Jane M Healy, Ph.D (Excerpted from her book of the same name)
Today’s children are the subjects of a vast and optimistic experiment. If it is successful, their minds and lives will be enriched, society will benefit, and education will be permanently changed for the better. But there is no proof–or even convincing evidence–that it will work.
The experiment, of course, involves getting kids “on computers” at school and at home in hopes that technology will improve the quality of learning and prepare our young for the future. But will it? Not necessarily, especially if used inappropriately or at the wrong ages.
When and How Should Children Start Using Computers?
Many child development experts believe that children wouldn’t suffer the slightest disadvantage if they didn’t see a computer until age ten or even later.
I recommend age seven as a possible readiness point. Prior to that time, computer use may do far more harm than good in terms of physical health, social and language development, and basic intelligence.
There is no critical period for learning computer use. Spending valuable brain time on Internet surfing or inferior software dressed up as “edutainment” will not prepare youngsters for the complex intellectual and personal demands of a rapidly-changing world.
Human brains arrive in the world with excess potential to make connections (synapses) between different types of neurons. While age-appropriate computer use may help establish some forms of connections, inappropriate use may also build resistant habits that interfere with academic learning.
What kind of connections will our children need most? The widest repertoire possible! A child with lopsided experiences is likely to end up with a lopsided brain. Starting children on computers too early is far worse than starting them too late. For example, a child should be able to understand the cause-effect relationship of moving a mouse or touching a screen to get a reaction before using a computer.
Good programs give a child the pleasure of gaining mastery over a difficult problem or succeeding at a task, rather than rewarding with extra games or silliness.
- Determine what purpose you wish to accomplish, considering developmental age.
- Preview programs if possible, and don’t always believe package claims.
- Look for programs with varying levels of difficulty.
- Examine graphics and sound critically with an eye toward artistic merit. Be wary of software that is over-stimulating to the senses.
- Choose programs that encourage original thinking and independence. Good programs allow a child to be an active agent, navigate in and out of activities, hear spoken directions, and understand help screens.
- Be alert for gender biases.
- Find real-life experiences that extend and complement the virtual ones. Supplement “eyes-on” with “hands-on.” The best toys are 90% child and 10% toy. Most children’s software is 90% computer and 10% child. Play is the young brain’s primary means of intellectual development. Adults who have retained their ability to play are the most productive and innovative people.
Balance Education and Entertainment
- Screen content for violence, anti-social messages and stereotyping.
- Don’t let screen time interfere with bedtime or lap time. Books on CD aren’t substitutes for interactive reading with loving adults. . Develop family guidelines for reasonable time limits.
- Don’t let cyberworlds substitute for social encounters or physical exercise.
- Be alert for unusual or “spaced-out” behavior suggesting computer addiction requiring serious professional attention.
- Seek games that encourage reading and original problem solving.
The Real World is Best
Many interesting and appropriate uses of educational computing are already available. The more actively the child uses her mind as she interacts with the technology, the more active the learning habits she will develop.
The wrong kind of activities, however, may subtract from playing, imagining and learning to focus the mind internally, as well as from creativity and motivation. When using computers, children passively experience – rather than coordinate and integrate – sound, movement and visual imagery, active processes that may prove to be irreplaceable.
Too much virtual life can bypass critical experiences and result in lasting handicaps. In fact, too many computer games may make a child prone to depression or affect the immune system. Thinking and feeling are irrevocably linked.
The best multimedia, interactive environment is still the real world. Rather than expose kids to artificial minds that possess no human values or common sense, offer them the squishiness of mud pies, the scent of peppermint extract, and the feel of balancing a block at the top of a tower. The adult world comes all too soon.