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Kids and computers: is early exposure all that important?

By Alice Bradley

The other day, my husband expressed his concern that Henry is, at the tender age of 5 and a few months, a computer semi-illiterate. Surprising as this may be for the child of two parents who are on the computer almost all the time, Henry has little to no interest in the computer. He rarely visits or other children’s educational sites. He owns a Webkinz, but the few times we explored the Webkinz universe he made me perform the necessary transactions, and then promptly forgot about it. (Poor little Meow-Meow is probably drawing her last breath, abandoned in her virtual Webkinz world.) His computer use is limited mostly to watching short videos on the web, which he commands us to find for him. He can manipulate the trackpad to hit play, but that’s about all he can or wants to do.

This is fine by me. I’m confident that he will grow up far more versed in computer technology than either of us, and I don’t see the rush to get him into it. Besides, at his level, the games and videos are just another version of screen entertainment. (Or, in the case of Webkinz, another method of encouraging mindless consumerism.) We limit him to one or two TV shows a day; why would we then push him to get online and be bombarded with more stimuli? Even if the online world he discovered was, let’s say, rich with interactivity and skill-building and all those good things, isn’t there time for that later? As he grows he’ll have plenty of opportunity to explore the Fabulous World of Computers, but the time for playing with blocks and imagining that our sunroom is a galactic space port is now.

Scott, on the other hand, frets because many of Henry’s peers can log on to the computer themselves, find their favorite websites, and immerse themselves in interactive environments, all with minimal assistance. Henry, on the other hand, will sit at the computer and shout SOMEONE GET ME LEGOS DOT COM. Computers will play an important role in his life, and Scott thinks we’re not giving him the head start he needs.

We had a fairly intense discussion about this for a while. I expressed my points clearly and calmly, and Scott shrieked like a prepubescent girl. Between you and me, this is the way most of our arguments go.

It seems that Scott’s not the only parent wondering if their children need more computer time to survive in this plugged-in world. In his Wall Street Journal blog, Jason Fry talks about his own little computer naïf, and wonders if he’s doing him a disservice.”The worry I can’t shake,” writes Jason.” is this: that in trying to protect what I see as simpler, sweeter days for Joshua, I’m really trying to preserve a museum of my own childhood. It’s my job to prepare him for the world he’ll inherit — and since computers and the Net will be part of that world, I’m neglecting a key portion of that task.”

I see his point, but I maintain that there’s world enough and time for all that, down the road. But am I wrong? It would be the first time. I checked online to see if I could find the experts’ opinion. I found that the general consensus out there seems to be… well, there’s no general consensus. Computers are either a useful tool or another entertainment crutch, depending on who you read.

Most agree that three and under is too young for the computer. (But at the age of three, you strap them to the computer until they’ve mastered CSS programming! Is that what you’d like, SCOTT?)

After three, the experts diverge. The primary argument against encouraging early computer use is that the more time you spend in front of the computer, the less time you have for unstructured play. Kids are already overscheduled and overstimulated; what they need is not computer literacy but open stretches of time to create, to dream, to imagine. The importance of creative play was discussed in a recent NPR segment, in which a cognitive skill called “executive function” was described as being developed during unstructured play. An important element of executive function is self-regulation, or “the ability for kids to control their emotions and behavior, resist impulses, and exert self-control and discipline … Good executive function is a better predictor of success in school than a child’s IQ.”

On the other hand, a study performed a few years ago showed that students with early exposure to computers excelled compared to their computer-unsavvy peers. “Those exposed to a home or school computer either alone or with someone else three to four times a week scored higher on tests that gauge school readiness and cognitive development than non-users.” Other studies have found that computer use in children can improve their fine motor skills as well as their recognition of numbers and letters.

So, if we’re to believe the research, if your child is computer-savvy, she’ll have no impulse control and few social skills; on the other hand, if you don’t encourage computer use in your preschooler, he’ll end up way behind all those socially unskilled kids. In other words, I don’t think there’s a right answer. It’s not worth freaking out about if your kid isn’t into the computer (ahem, Scott); nor are you depriving your kid of childhood if he’s computer-literate at the age of four.

What do you think, dear audience? Scott’s wrong and I’m right, right? I thought so.

Published April 4, 2008. Last updated April 24, 2017.
Alice Bradley
About the Author

Alice Bradley

Alice Bradley was a regular contributor to Alpha Mom, writing about current events as they related to parenting. You can read about her daily life at her personal blog, Finslippy.


Alice Bradley was a regular contributor to Alpha Mom, writing about current events as they related to parenting. You can read about her daily life at her personal blog, Finslippy.

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  • designingmama

    April 4, 2008 at 12:43 pm

    I think Henry will be fine. You have the computer available to him if he is inclined to use it, and that’s all you need to do. I have a 13yo, an 8yo and a 4yo, and all of them have an appropriate level of computer skill. Not taught by me, of course… they learned to use the computer in school. Basic, level-funded, not-at-all-revolutionary public school. And they astound me with how quickly they have picked it up. I have been a graphic designer for 17 years, and my eldest can toss together a web page much faster than I can. How did he learn this? By having a myspace page. Believe me, Henry will pick up computers when he’s ready, at his own pace. And then he’ll teach you how to use them more effectively.

  • SuburbanCorrespondent

    April 4, 2008 at 1:21 pm

    The problem with all screen time (TV, computer, games) is not what they are doing “on screen,” but what the screen time replaces: legos, crafting with scissors, coloring, imaginative play (from their imaginations, not some web designer adult’s), outdoor play…the list goes on and on…
    I have 6 children, teens on down, all of whom were pretty much deprived of all screen opportunities (aside from the occasional video) in their younger years. Because I am a masochist.
    No, not really, but sometimes it did feel that way.
    Anyway, within approximately 2.6 seconds of showing my 12-year-old son how to use a computer mouse and keyboard, he had caught on to everything I’d learned (computer-wise)in the previous 10 years or so. Now I ask him for help. This worry about their being “behind” is simply a non-issue. The study that shows some kids are more “school-ready” than others does not follow the children long enough to see how quickly this lead disappears.
    They can learn computers, etc., when they are older; but they can only learn to imagine and play in the younger years. Don’t take that away from them.

  • SuburbanCorrespondent

    April 4, 2008 at 1:21 pm

    Dammit, you always get me on a soapbox. Cut that out.

  • Cobwebs

    April 4, 2008 at 1:53 pm

    I’m all for limiting computer time. Letting your child immerse himself in someone else’s imagination gives him less of a chance to enrich his own.
    I think the notion that a child will be disadvantaged without a ton of early computer exposure is kind of silly; nobody who’s older than 25 had much computer exposure as a small child, but we still seem able to muddle through.

  • Slim

    April 4, 2008 at 2:38 pm

    I once was ambitious enough to subscribe to Zero-to-Three, and in an article on kids and computers, one of their experts asked “What is so interactive about pushing a button?”
    Ask Scott that, why dontcha? Or Scott, if you’re reading this, too, answer that. Huh? Huh? Wouldn’t it be better for Henry to be playing Star Wars with his daddy while that’s still OK? It’s only a matter of time before we’re all getting elbowed out of the way for the computer. Why rush the process?

  • L

    April 4, 2008 at 4:45 pm

    I think with computer literacy (or print literacy) exposure is the key. If your child sees you use the computer, and you show him things on occasion, then he can let you know when he is ready for more. As a smart child of smart parents I don’t think there is any worry that he will somehow never understand computers, and it is important to let him learn at his own pace. The other important thing is that for the rest of his life he can play on the computer, but this age is really the only appropriate time to do those kid things: imagination, play, and all the rest. I am absolutely on your side: let him play while he still can!

  • cagey

    April 4, 2008 at 4:53 pm

    Interesting discussion – I will definitely be stalking the comments on this one!
    I am going with the Everything in Moderation approach. The computer is just ONE thing in my kids lives, that’s all. There are A LOT of hours in the day to fill – I suspect there will still be plenty o’ time to do all the traditional things in addition to playing around on the computer a bit.
    I am 37 (in two weeks! yikes!) and we got our first computer when I was around 13. I have never been afraid of computers and love to play around with them — I think that is key (that and a process for backing up your files!!!)
    Anyway, I was never intimidated to play around and learn. Similarly, I want my kids to be comfortable with computers and technology, but um, no – they do not really need to be programming CSS before kindergarten.
    This comfort level with computers helped me in my profession immensely (IT auditing, data security, software development) – so yes, I am very prejudiced on this subject. It probably does not help that my husband is an IIT grad from India. We just want our kids to be familiar with something that is already prevalent in their lives.

  • Reverie

    April 4, 2008 at 5:01 pm

    I think we worry too much and need to go with the flow a little more! Kids pick up computer skills easily–it’s part of their world, everywhere they turn. What’s truly important is spending time with them…playing, reading, talking. The computer stuff will happen, and then you’ll wish it hadn’t 🙂

  • alice


    April 4, 2008 at 6:07 pm

    I agree, we worry far too much about these things–but the studies don’t help, do they. “Early exposure will cripple your child! Early exposure is key! PANIC!” Sigh.

  • Lauxa

    April 4, 2008 at 6:18 pm

    Wow, you’re asking my opinion?
    I think Henry and every other child from the age of infant and up should beta test my new online flashcards at
    I think it’s a no-brainer that kids can learn an incredible amount of trivia from TV’s and computers and also valuable skills like math and reading.
    I don’t think it’s such a big deal if your kid can’t login by himself at age 5. I think that you will be spending a great many years of battles trying to restrict his computer access and don’t see why you would want to accelerate the process.
    I think that there’s enough time for computers AND unstructured play.

  • Anne

    April 4, 2008 at 6:31 pm

    I’m with Cagey, it’s just one facet of a multi-faceted day. Caroline colors and dances and writes letters to her cousin that she adores and makes up songs and helps cook and plays games on the computer. As long as she’s not sneaking downstairs to play Tile Towers after we’re in bed and spending her time slack jawed and bloodshot in front of the screen, I’m okay with that.

  • Maggie

    April 4, 2008 at 7:17 pm

    My son is almost exactly the same age as Henry and he is no more computer literate. He can use the keypad to select and that is it. He’s just not that interested in the computer and I figure I’ll have years later when I wish he’d just get off the damned computer for a moment, so I’m in no rush.

  • Kirsten

    April 4, 2008 at 8:47 pm

    For me the issue comes down to the question of building capacities vs. skills. I try to expose my children to activities that build their ability to solve problems creatively. They play outside a lot and most of their play is imaginative. I trust that if they can do that, they will pick up the skills they need to do whatever they set their minds on, be it computers, cooking or painting. After all, who is to say that the way we operate computers today is anything like what it will be in 10 years?

  • All Adither

    April 4, 2008 at 10:32 pm

    What are computers?

  • Slim

    April 5, 2008 at 12:03 am

    AA, they’re magic boxes that can do, um, things.

  • Reverie

    April 5, 2008 at 12:23 am

    Yes, the studies don’t help…darn intellectuals… So toss them in the air, ponder the middle ground between extremes and go with your gut. You’re an amazing writer–I suspect you’re also an amazing mom.

  • Bobo

    April 5, 2008 at 9:33 am

    Like many of the commentors above, I’m all for delaying the exposure to computers, especially if it’s clear that Henry has no interest in them as of yet.
    I’m 17 now, and until I was 10 had absolutely zero access to internet, although I did use a computer very occasionally. As soon as I was exposed to it, I had caught up with all my internet-loving friends in about a month. So it really was a non-issue for me, and on top of that I’m pretty sure that my limited time on the computer when I was younger was at least partially responsible for the fact that I went on to do well throughout high school.

  • Caroline

    April 5, 2008 at 5:05 pm

    Enjoy this time when he’s more interested in playing! I teach high school, where every 9th grader is given a laptop of their very own to keep through high school. Those who aren’t very savvy at first master them very quickly and are continually distracted from that point on! My own kids are a little more fascinated with the computer than I’m comfortable with, and I’m hoping that the technology-is-everything trends slows a bit by the time that they reach high school.

  • carabeth

    April 7, 2008 at 12:40 am

    I haven’t read the other comments, so I don’t know If I’m repeating someone else, but I don’t want my kids to go on the computer much yet, and they don’t watch tv at all yet (2 & 4). They’ll learn when they learn, and they are learning so much more important things without it. I think there are more important skills than computer skills, and those skills are less tangible, but are what kids learn in their free-play, (creative thinking, social skills, self-reflection, (let them be bored sometimes!))
    Tell Scott that Bill Gates limits his children to 45 minutes of total screen time per day.

  • Sue

    April 7, 2008 at 12:48 am

    As a parent who brought kids into the school system somewhat delayed in all areas due to spending their first three years in orphanages and not speaking English until the age of 3 and a half, I can say with confidence that lack of computer exposure was not one of the areas any teacher has ever addressed. Early literacy prep is far more important.
    I think this is common but our school library is now called a media center and the kids have computer skills taught from grade one. The computers take up as much room as the books. That’s a helluva lot more than I had and I somehow got all the way to masters level without computer skills. I have NO idea how I wrote papers.
    I read a study once where it appeared that computer usage is actually making kids dumber. Not hard to believe. It’s making me dumber!

  • Vikki

    April 7, 2008 at 9:54 am

    We don’t allow much computer time, though my 6 yo son has a blog on space (which I regret every time he begs me to log him on to write an entry). Computers are everywhere, however, and I don’t know how we’ll handle things as time goes by. Last week, I heard him say to a friend…”You think you are so smart? Well, you don’t know HTML!” Sigh.

  • caramama

    April 7, 2008 at 12:33 pm

    As a person who has a masters is journalism and mass communication, let me say that you can make the “studies” say just about anything you want. As a person who works in IT for a living, let me say that my limited time on computers as a child did not handicap me at all.
    As for Scott, you should remind him that he wanted to expose Henry to Star Wars early… and how did that turn out? Does Henry want to limit his exposure to all things Star Wars? Or is he obsessively addicted to it and want to play it all the time?* So, if you rush to expose him to computers, is there perhaps a chance that he might want only the computer, forsaking all else, and play on it until he goes blind by the age of 6? I’m just saying.
    *Nothing wrong with that. I’m a huge Star Wars addict myself.

  • miep

    April 7, 2008 at 8:30 pm

    I am inclined to agree with Kirsten up there. When I was 7, they introduced computers to our school. We learned to program in LOGO. I never, ever used or saw anything about LOGO after that, except as a quaint reminiscence with other kids my age. Computer usage will change significantly between now and 2018, and the power and memory in the average celphone, ipod, or TI calculator is light years beyond what was available in a personal computer when I was 5.
    Also, there’s some evidence out there that the ability to create vivid mental pictures and to manipulate them in one’s imagination is one that is not helped at all by computer games or tv watching. In fact, it may be hindered. So, in that sense, Henry’s way ahead!

  • janny226

    April 7, 2008 at 9:30 pm

    His time on the computer has helped DuckyBoy with some of the issues like self-control and discipline. But the key is that HE enjoys it, he drives his use — we’ve never spent time tutoring him or making him stay on a site. We’ve shown him games and sites he might like, and he hears about others and asks for help getting there — but does it himself if he can once the URL has been typed in. Other than TV, the computer has been one of the only things he’ll do without my direct involvement for the past year, so we tend to encourage it. In fact, don’t tell Scott, but our family laptop is basically set up for DuckyBoy’s use 99 percent of the time. It keeps him busy while I cook. Or sleep in on Saturdays. Or talk on the phone. Whether it will help him rule the universe at age 20 or so is still in question.

  • andrea

    April 8, 2008 at 1:19 pm

    Wasn’t the generation that created the dot com era born at a time when computers were as big as a house? We had one computer in my whole K-8 school and only the super-geeky/wealthier kids had a Commodore 64…yet here I am another mindless drone staring at a screen all day…I’d be perfectly happy if my kids wandered in fields of butterflies all day and never looked at a screen (whenever I do get on the computer at home–which is rarely–my six year old says “when can I play my construction game?” incessantly until I hand the laptop over to him). Besides…what good will computer skills do if they have carpel tunnel by age 8 and can’t move their fingers?

  • fluorescencemom

    April 11, 2008 at 4:05 pm

    Not to be a luddite, but I have serious concerns with little kids and computers. Frankly, computers are just too cool. For at least some kids, they seem far more interesting and stimulating than the rest of the world and it becomes hard for those kids not to become obsessed. I’ve watched a pretty social 3 year old duck out on his birthday party to play on a computer instead – because that (educational) game was more interesting than playing with friends, etc. I think it can be really stunting. Of course, other kids, an hour and they’re fine. But, especially if a kid is the obsessive type (and a lot are), it seems like something to be put off as long as you can get away with it.
    Of course, my kid is one year old. Give me two years and i may be eating my words as he clicks away…

  • crystal

    April 13, 2008 at 11:37 pm

    An acquaintance of mine recently told me that the way her kid learned to read was that whenever she wanted a website, her parents told her she’d have to figure out how to do it herself. Rather than turn her off computers, she learned how to read because she got sick of waiting for Godot (ie someone to type for her).
    I wouldn’t worry too much. Kids get exposure to computers in school and they’ll be peer pressured into using them before 4th/5th grade anyways…how else will they be able to im their friends?

  • Rachel b

    April 18, 2008 at 1:03 am

    I’m with you – no need to rush. We let my 5 yr old play games on the library computers, but very little use at home. And I’m glad his preschool doesn’t give them much computer time – they’ll be indoctrinated in kindergarten soon enough. He has a Leapster that is too damn close to a video game anyway, but mostly just plays it on long car trips. I’m going to delay the relentless campaign for video games as long as humanly possible. I think we have until about September 15, 2 weeks into kindergarten, before it begins.