Preschoolers Log On: Are Computers Helpful or Harmful to Young Kids

By Lindsey Townsend

Susan Morgan, a 35-year-old freelance writer, has to share her computer time with a tough negotiator--her three-year-old son Zach. “Whenever he sees me go to work, he runs over to the computer and tells me ‘I want to play my game!” she says. “He already knows how to turn the computer on, pick out his CD and load it, and manipulate the mouse.”

Zach is part of a new generation of kids who are learning to point and click almost as soon as they can talk. More than half of 2-7-year-olds now have a computer in the home, according to a Kaiser Family Foundation report. And in preschools and daycares nationwide, computers are becoming as common as books and blocks. In 1994 only 35% of schools had Internet access; but by 1999, that figure had risen to 95%, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

But not all childhood experts think that computers are beneficial to a young child’s development. The American Academy of Pediatrics has released a report advocating restrictive measures such as limiting use and banning computers from bedrooms. The advocacy group Alliance for Childhood has published a report called “Fool’s Gold: A Critical Look at Computers in Childhood” claiming that computers can threaten young children’ health and intellectual and social development. Their main concern is that there is no data on the long-term intellectual and social effects of computers on young children.

Some experts maintain that computer games aren’t useful because children, particularly toddlers, learn best through hands-on learning with real objects. While computers can open up doors to knowledge, they can also deprive young children of other important developmental experiences-such as interaction with parents-if relied upon too heavily. “Computer games are, in general, not helpful to children-especially when they are used as a substitute for direct experience with something or as a substitute for adult participation in education,” says Kelly Laurence, LMHC, Ph.D., professor at The Union Institute.

One thing the experts do agree on: the importance of parental involvement. Much like television, computers are a tool that can either be helpful or harmful depending on how they are used. “They can be excellent learning tools if the parents sit down in the chair and participate with the child, asking questions and turning it into a positive learning experience between them,” says Dr. Steve Green, assistant professor and child development specialist with the Texas Agricultural Extension Service, Texas A&M University. “They often provide letter and number recognition that promote preliteracy skills, and they can provide a sense of achievement to children who are able to develop mouse and keyboard skills. The real danger I see is when they are used as a babysitter, without parental involvement or guidance.”

Some say that the computer’s most valuable role is to serve as an extension to lessons learned at home or at school. For example, mom might play an alphabet game with her toddler, then later use the computer to reinforce letter recognition. “Computers and software can be fun and exciting, provide visual and auditory stimulation, and help develop some skills that can lead to reading and writing,” says Dr. Vicki Folds, vice president of education for Tutor Time Child Care/Learning Systems. “But will it ever substitute for active play or book learning or take the place of mom or dad’s voice reading a story? Absolutely not.”

Before you let your kids log on, it’s a good idea to ask yourself what activities those computer games are replacing. “Computer games are simply the icing on the cake. If there's no cake, the icing has no value,” say Darlene DeMarie, an education professor at the University of South Florida in Tampa. The “cake,” according to DeMarie, includes opportunities to see and experience things first-hand, activities that promote eye-hand coordination, and fostering a love of books and book knowledge: “which includes the warm and close feeling that become associated with books when adults read them to children.”

Don’t worry that your toddler will be left behind if he or she hasn’t yet joined the arena. Many experts believe that children don’t really benefit from computer games before age 3 or so, because they simply don’t have the skills yet to follow verbal or pictorial commands.

If you do decide to add computer games to your educational toolbag, be sure to evaluate the educational goal of the software you buy. Is it simply a fill-in-the-blank experience, which communicates to young children that a specific answer is always correct, or does it promote creativity and problem solving? How much control does the child have over the content and the selection of items? What is the level of difficulty? Is it tailored to their age and developmental stage, or will it be frustrating for your child because it’s too advanced?

Also, be sure to consider ergonomics when you let your pint-sized toddler use your adult-sized chair and computer. At least one study has found that children are at risk for muscle injury when they work at computer desks designed for adults. To avoid problems, make sure the monitor is at eye level, that your child’s feet are flat on the floor, and that he doesn’t have to lift his arm above elbow height to use the mouse.

Whether or not you’re a fan of computer games, there’s no escaping the new digital age. Learning to use computers wisely will help your child succeed in a world where technologies are converging rapidly. Once your child has discovered the joys of logging on, it’s up to you to establish some common-sense rules on use. Here are some guidelines to help:

  • Make sure that computer time is only one part of a full day that includes active play, book learning, and lots of time with Mom and Dad.
  • Sit with your child while he uses the computer and use it as an opportunity to interact with him.
  • Always keep the computer in a visible area of the house.
  • Set limits on computer use-for example, one hour a day.
  • Evaluate the appropriateness of the software your child is using. Does he or she understand the concepts being presented? Can he discuss what he or she is doing or trying to accomplish with the game?
  • Let your child lead the activity. If he or she seems bored, restless, or frustrated, stop and do something else.

Finally, remember that no matter how entertaining the program is or how good the graphics are on the latest-and-greatest game, there is no substitute for your child’s best teacher: you. After all, you can’t snuggle up to a computer, and you’ll never find one that knows how to give a good hug, either!