An old Iranian proverb says: “Eat your bread in such a way that the bread does not become your master.” In modern times, we’d be wise to say the same thing about our relationship with technology.
If you were born between the 1940’s and the 1970’s, you’ve experienced first-hand how important technology is for getting ahead in the workforce. Those in our generation who obtained the necessary technology training to keep up with industry trends have been able to move ahead in the workforce, while others who were stumped by computers have been left behind. We stand in awe of tech wizards who do with computers what most of us could only dream of (I should know, my husband is one of those brainiacs), and society rewards them handsomely for their abilities.
Not surprisingly, we believe that the secret to our children’s success lies in early exposure to technology. After all, if we’d been born with a laptop in our hands, we wouldn’t have had to undergo the scary technology learning curve most of us experienced in high school, college, or worse: on the job! I still remember being in my first year of college (1994) and opening a web browser for the first time. I had no idea what to do or what to type after arriving at mtv.com (the only website I could think of!). I also remember working in the corporate world with people only a few years older than me who had no clue how to use basic office technology. “I’m about to get fired” was written all over their angst-ridden faces as they cringed before the monitor. Relate those experiences to the current day, when four-year-olds are giving their parents lessons on how to use an iPhone, and it becomes clear why parents are so eager to encourage their pre-schoolers’ impressive computer skills!
However, we are doing young children a terrible disservice by exposing them to computers at an early age (even those computers with so-called educational software). We are stealing from our children the short window of opportunity for developing CRUCIAL neurological and intellectual skills that ONLY come through real-world experiences.
Am I afraid of technology? That’s like asking if I’m afraid of tools. Both are marvelous inventions when used correctly! Computers are a tool, and like every tool, they should be handled responsibly and used for the right purposes. An electric drill is a very useful tool for hanging a painting, but it can have dire consequences if used incorrectly. So can computers.
Here are (a few of) the facts:
- Computers rob children of outdoor playtime. Playing outdoors greatly benefits their physical health, encourages socialization, and develops problem-solving skills (read on to find out why computer software fails to provide truly useful problem-solving opportunities). Physical activity also increases oxygen supply and balances chemical secretions in the brain. Children with balanced brain chemistry are more capable of dealing with stress, anxiety, and depression, and show an increased ability to learn and retain information.
- Computers take time away from experiences with real-world items (be it toys, art supplies, or a basket full of laundry). These physical experiences provide the child with important clues about how the world REALLY works (i.e. gravity, cause & effect, self-control), drive him to find out more, and allow him to control of his environment. Computer programs decide what the child is going to learn; they don’t provide useful multi-sensory feedback (e.g. banging your finger with a hammer in real life is a lot more educational than the same experience in the virtual world); and they breed a passive learner who is dependent on machines to provide experiences and solutions. Additionally, if a child is stumped on a computer problem, he can shut down the machine and walk away with no consequences. Not so when he has to figure out how to load the dishwasher so all the plates will fit and the door will close!
- Computers rob children of valuable child-adult interactions. In a very large study, researchers found that interactions between children and adults were the primary determinants of children’s intelligence, academic success, and emotional stability. What did these interactions look like? They were “relaxed explorations guided primarily by the child and supported by helpful and emotionally responsive but not overly intrusive adults.” (Healy, Failure to Connect) Can computers be “helpful and emotionally responsive”? No, but you sure can!
- Computers discourage the type of problem-solving scenarios that create lasting intellectual growth. When a child is stuck on a problem in real life, a subtle suggestion or question from an adult can be just what he needs to solve the problem himself. Even the most sophisticated computer programs cannot do this, so children who work with computers learn that the only way to find out the right answer is by waiting for the computer to show them (if they’re patient and interested enough to wait that long). Gone are the feelings of satisfaction and triumph that come from solving a problem, and gone too is the embodiment of that new knowledge through the experience of figuring it out.
- Computers don’t provide clear “if-then” experiences, thereby impairing a child’s ability to judge situations. Psychologists now know that children need physical experiences that they themselves can control (e.g. if I do x this way, then y will happen – What happens if I do x differently?). This phenomenon is especially important between the ages of three and four, when the brain takes a giant leap in causal reasoning. And this is exactly when many parents choose to introduce computers to their children – computers that are ripe with software that provides confusing and unnatural cause-effect relationships. Not surprisingly, elementary and junior high school teachers report a growing number of older students who struggle with applying “if-then” concepts to math, science, and social relations. Even my husband, who teaches at the college level, has noticed this growing trend among his undergraduate students.
- Computers confuse children about what is fact and what is fiction. While young children have a hard time telling the difference between fantasy and reality, by age seven most can tell the two concepts apart. However, studies have shown that the more screen time children are exposed to when they’re young, the more they struggle with correctly identifying something as fact or fiction as they get older.
In summary: The tech geniuses and titans of industry of today did not achieve their success by sitting in front of a computer at age four. Their impressive creative and entrepreneurial abilities come from the real-life experiences they had as young children.
Let a pile of laundry be your children’s software and the sandbox be their Silicon Valley. Allow them to care for a real mouse and “byte” into carrots and radishes straight from the garden. Invite them to connect with the world and behold the true genius that’s just waiting to burst out.
For a fascinating look at how computers affect our children, as well as a more in-depth explanation of the specific points discussed here, refer to the wonderful book “Failure To Connect” by Dr. Jane Healy. If you don’t have time to read the entire book, at least check out Chapter Seven – Cybertots: Technology and the Preschool Child. Get a free preview through Google Books!