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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.

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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