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Your Small Child Could be Harmed by Too Much Time with the Computer!
From "False Promise", U.S. News & World Report , September 25, 2000

        A growing number of educators, child development specialists, and doctors are warning us about early childhood computer use.  The Alliance for Childhood, a child-advocacy group released a report in September entitled Fool's Gold: A Critical Look at Computers in Childhood, that suggests that computers have the potential to damage the intellectual and social development of young children.  The report emphasizes the children's need for strong personal bonds with adults, and suggests that computer use distracts adults and children from each other.  The U.S. News article reports that some teachers are reporting "shrinking attention spans and decreasing motivation."  The article quotes psychologist Jane Healy, Ph.D., author of Failure to Connect:  How Computers Affect Our Children's Minds, who states, "For certain types of learning, certain mental habits such as motivation, perseverance, concentration, and certainly reading and language skills, everything we know suggests that this technology may do more harm than good."  Kathy Hirsh-Pasek, director of the Infant Language Laboratory at Temple University in Philadelphia, points out that computers reduce three dimensional play activities down to two dimensions.  Yet in early years children should be learning both fine and gross motor skills, along with depth perception, and eye-hand coordination.  

     Even so-called "educational software" is problematic.  Much of it is "drill and practice" by design, emphasizing memorization rather that understanding.  While children exposed to high-quality developmental software can make gains in intelligence, and nonverbal communication skills, those exposed only to "drill and practice" software show a significant drop in creativity.  Bob McCannon of the New Mexico Media Literacy Project points out that much of the software detracts from concentration, attention span, and enjoyment of detail.  The growing controversy may result in new action in our schools.  Harvard professor of psychiatry Alvin Poussaint and noted child psychiatrist Marilyn Benoit signed a petition calling for a moratorium on introduction of computers in early childhood and elementary education until more research can determine the long term effects of such use.  

        The risk of harm from excessive computer use extends into the teen years.  Our current teens are the first generation to be truly raised on computers throughout their childhood.  In 1998 a Carnegie Mellon University study found that loneliness and isolation were more prevalent among teens who used computers heavily.  Harvey Waxman, of the Harvard Medical School, has researched the impact of the internet on the behavior of teens, and finds that loneliness is indeed a real risk.  Time spent on line also has implications for moral development.  Elizabeth Kiss, Director of the Kenan Institute for Ethics at Duke University suggests that the impersonal nature of the on line experience allows teens to act in socially unacceptable ways without fear of being confronted.  For some, such as teen "hackers", this becomes a lesson in criminal behavior.  Dr. Jane Healy suggests, "our passion for the fruits of technology has caused us to separate intellectual and moral values," and that "We seem to care more about how fast our children can learn than how deeply they can feel." 

A Comment From David Peters
        In my practice I am finding more teens and children who appear to be very dependent upon the intense, but narrow stimulation of the computer or video games.  These children frequently find the classroom environment boring by comparison.  They honestly experience "nothing's happening" in the classroom.  They have been "disabled" from learning!  While using the computer, a child responds to the feeling of boredom by "clicking" on to the next game or web page.  They are trained to give up early. We must teach our children that they cannot "point and click" their way past challenging school material.  The ability to maintain focus on mundane material is an essential skill for learning.  More importantly, our children must benefit from the enrichment of real human interaction in order to mature into adults.  We learn every day from our interactions with others, and this is lost every hour we spend in front of the "artificial intelligence" of the computer. 

        It seems clear that we should be cautious in pushing our children to rely on the family computer for their education and entertainment.  In measured quantity, computer use can enhance their learning.  But just as with the television, a clever machine is no substitute for real-live play time with real-live people and toys that are held in the hand.  We must take a leadership role in our children's development.  Let's offer them a variety of intellectual and social stimulation.  And don't forget the hugs!


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