Are Kids Harmed or Helped by Computers?

I sat down to research this topic with the hope of providing you with some concrete answers. Instead, I discovered a world of contrasting opinions on the effect computers have on young children. Doctors, scientists, teachers, and parents have published scores and scores of articles on this subject, but few of them seem to agree, and even the many studies that have been conducted over the past decade have been rather inconclusive.

Many Montessori schools tend to be firmly against computer use amongst small children, while other public educators claim it speeds up the development of the intellect. Let me share what I’ve discovered with you, and I hope you’ll let me know what your take is on how computers are affecting kids.

Social Development

This is the big one. Every hour a child spends on a computer equals one less hour spent socializing with humans. The focus demanded by software games and the Internet excludes the type of interaction within the home or classroom that might take place during a group game, or even while a child is doing something like drawing in a coloring book.

While most people agree that the first five years or life are the crucial period of the development of a child’s social being, disagreement comes into play over whether children can afford to lose an hour or two a day sitting in front of a computer, locked into a private pursuit. After all, few teachers would oppose a child who wanted to go off into a quiet corner with an interesting book. This wouldn’t be viewed as a threat to developing social skills. But what if that same child was spending 3, 4, 5 hours every day between the covers of a book, to the exclusion of play, exercise, eating or sleeping?

The most unconvincing argument I came across was that computers don’t adversely affect children’s social development because children can use computers to communicate with a wider world of people. The suggestion that children should be using the Internet to talk to strangers is a very poor one, and I can’t believe it was made by anyone who loves and feels protective of youngsters.

The most reasonable advice I found being given to parents who do have home computers is that, like television, their use should be strictly monitored and limited to a short, set time period each day. The child should spend much more time pursuing real-world activities.

My concern is that, for the total family, the tempting demands of a TV and a computer in every home mean that there is a good possibility for each member to be separately engaged during all non-work, non-school hours so that the concept of family time disappears.

Intellectual Development and Attention Span

“Kids that had some access to a computer, either at home or at a family member’s house they went to frequently, had higher estimated IQ scores and higher school readiness scores than kids that did not have access to a computer,” said Melissa Atkins, a professor of pediatrics at the University of Ohio.

Other recent studies have likewise found that computer use enhances a child’s fine motor skills, problem-solving skills, alphabet recognition, concept learning, numerical recognition, counting skills, cognitive development, and self-esteem. Other studies show that increased computer use leads obesity and decreased physical fitness. So how do we make sure our children benefit from computers?

My own gut feeling would be that the type of computer opportunities being engaged in would have a real effect on skill acquisition. A program that fosters word recognition or problem solving could certainly assist a child, but I am at present unconvinced that the results would differ greatly in children who are pursuing similar accomplishments with appealing, tangible materials.

I have noticed with my own children that when they are playing a game that truly engages and teaches them, it usually leads to real-life activities as well. For example, my son enjoys playing LEGO Universe, an online multi-player game where kids create worlds out of LEGOs. His interest in this game led him to write a story based on LEGO Universe that was over 3,000 words! During the writing of the story, he learned about structure, pacing, punctuation, grammar, characterization, and more. It was all his own idea and the result was spectacular.

Regarding attention span, author Jane M. Healy, Ph.D of Failure to Connect: How Computers Affect Our Children’s Minds warns that therapists are seeing increasing numbers of young people who simply cannot focus their attention. I’m not ready to place the blame for this completely on computers, but I absolutely recognize that the intense sensory impact many computer programs have could make it very difficult for children to focus on anything less hectic. A child who has been allowed to overindulge in roller-coaster-ride excitement might find a simple book boring.

By strange contrast, a study of 1,400 children involving a Swedish-developed computer game claimed that attention skills, problem-solving skills and academic achievement improved by 80%. The skeptic in me looks carefully at results as wondrous at these and tries to consider who would be benefited by these stellar statistics.

Motor Development

When children sit at computers, they use their hands, their fingers, their minds and their eyes. The rest of the body is dormant. From infancy forward, it is crucial for young children to test and interact with the physical world, using all parts of the human form. Running against the wind, tumbling down a gentle hill, climbing stairs, catching a ball, tying shoes, learning to hold a pencil, skipping down a sandy beach – these are all traditional sources for developing both gross and fine motor skills.

Taken to an extreme, a child whose total time was spent at a computer would be likely
to develop a pitifully weak spine, legs, and feet while their hands grew peculiarly muscular. On an evolutionary scale, generations of humans raised this way could come to look unrecognizable to us. But, that’s talking in extremes.

My research indicates that limited computer use may promote dexterity of the fingers and cause no measurable developmental harm. Overuse could certainly lead to the neglect of total body motor skills and, as any office worker can tell you, carpal tunnel syndrome. Moderation seems indicated here.

An additional concern is that children sitting at computer stations that have been adjusted for adults may develop back and neck problems. If children are using home computers, they need to be adjusted so that they monitor is slanted at the appropriate angle for the child, and the chair should support correct posture for a child – not an adult.

Vision Problems

This is a very real concern. When looking at a printed page, the human eye adjusts easily to the bold contrast between printed, black letters and white paper. Computer characters are made up of pixels, and the light and vague fuzziness of these cause the eye to focus on the plane of the screen as it struggles to maintain focus on the text. People who spend more than two hours a day on a computer are likely to develop CVS (Computer Vision Syndrome), the hallmarks of which are blurred vision, dry eyes, headaches, light sensitivity and neck and shoulder pain.

Because children tend to be less self-aware than adults, they are even greater candidates for CVS. They can become so absorbed in a program, they will fall into a hunched position, forget to blink, and seriously damage their vision.

Recommended tips for decreasing the danger of CVS in both kids and adults include installing glare screen filters, wearing computer glasses, making sure room lighting is proper, blinking frequently and taking 10-15 minute breaks for every hour of computer use.

Is It Valid To Keep Kids Off Computers In Today’s World?

This is one of the most frequently asked questions about this subject. It’s such a good question that I’m going to answer it with some other questions. Is early childhood the time for children to learn to become programmers? Would age 4 or 14 be a better time for a kid to start spending serious time with a tool that is, indeed, very likely to form a part of their future life?

Does teaching Montessori children to be independent, skilled workers mean we want them to have a job by the age of 9? Or, does it mean we want them to develop a joyful spirit from positive physical and spiritual interactions with the real world and its people, plants and animals? America, in particular, has spent a century now being fixated on this concept of waves of the future, futuristic living and a dubious virtue called ‘progress’. But no child is born with a keyboard in hand. Life begins with skin and eyes, with fingers and kicking feet.

It is my personal belief that the majority of small children’s time needs to be spent honoring all of the equipment they come into the world with, long before they begin engaging in the elective equipment of technology. By the same token, I’d rather see kids running on grass than concrete. Simultaneously, it is reality that most modern homes contain computers and Dr. Montessori was a consummate realist. When children see their parents engaged in computer activities, they will naturally want to explore and participate in what is going on.

As I have mentioned before, I do let my children play educational computer games for short, monitored periods. Neither of them have access to the Internet, and it will be a long time before that will happen. As they get older, I do plan on letting them use the computer to write papers and do research, but again, this will always be carefully monitored.

I try to view their computer activities as one small part of all the things they do. It is only one activity among many, and my belief is that children are best served by a wide variety of options that respect their diverse developmental needs.