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Values of Computer Use by Preschoolers

There is considerable debate among educators, child psychologists and pediatricians regarding the values of computer use by young children. On the one hand are those who stress that computers are now part of our world, and that an early introduction to computers, has a variety of benefits including improved cognitive and social skills as well as solid preparation for more advanced computer use. On the other hand are those who argue that children need to learn about the real world before they learn about the virtual one, and that too early computer use may damage the young child’s still maturing sensory and motor abilities.

What makes deciding which direction to go in so difficult, is that we have so little good research on the topic. What we do know for sure is that computer use has been increasing at least for 5 year olds. A 2003 report by the US Department of Education found that about 75 percent of five-year-olds were using computers. In a 2004 survey study the investigators found that rural young children were as involved with computers as were there suburban and urban age mates. The also found that girls used the computer as frequently as the boys. These data suggest that computers may be breaking down some previous cultural and gender divides.

There also seems to be some agreement that computers not be introduced before the age of three. Even those who argue for computer use after the age of three, offer a number of cautions. The programs have to be age appropriate, e.g. more animation than text, the time spent on computers should be limited and the physical arrangement should be comfortable for the child and type size large enough so that young children do not have to strain their eyes. Many young children seem to take naturally to computers while others do not. These preferences should be respected and a child should never be forced into computer use.

My own sense is that children can learn to use computers more competently and effectively after the age of seven or eight. If young children get over involved in computer use they may learn habits, thanks to their limited motor and mental abilities, that they may have to unlearn later. I recognize, of course, that the pervasiveness of computers at home and preschool makes young children’s experimentation with this technology inevitable. As long as it is experimentation and game playing, and respectful of the cautions, mentioned above, it is unlikely to do any harm.

Where the harm comes in is using computers to get preschoolers involved with computers for the purpose of giving them a head start on academics or of keeping them occupied while parents are doing something else. Computers are here to stay and are part of our environment. The same is true for microwave ovens but we don’t use the fact of their pervasiveness to justify letting young children use them. The point is, the pervasiveness of a technology is no guarantee of its appropriateness for children.

By Professor David Elkind 


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