Technology and childhood
Every morning before school, 9-year-old Gabrielle Harrison of Seattle checks
the weather and school lunch menu on her computer. Her 7-year-old
sister Delaney already uses the Internet for homework, researching a
different animal each week for her second-grade class at the John
Stanford School, and sometimes younger sister Gwyn, 2, likes to see the
Meanwhile, in Bellevue, 17-year-old Sky VanSickle plays online games and surfs the Internet while simultaneously instant messaging friends. A junior at Sammamish High School, VanSickle intends to study computer science in college.
Most people agree that technology, from computers to cell phones to iPods, has impacted every aspect of being a child. What parents and experts are unlikely to agree about, however, is whether this change is negative, positive or something in between.
"We have technologized childhood, says Dimitri Christakis, M.D., M.P.H, a pediatrician at Children's Hospital and Regional Medical Center in Seattle. "It is a dramatic change and it has happened on one hand insidiously and on the other hand very quickly. We, unfortunately, don't know a lot about the effects of this. In many ways it is a big, bold experiment that is being taken without much forethought. Children are growing up in a very different environment than they did even 10 years ago."
Parents often feel they are walking through a minefield of do's and don'ts from various experts and software marketers who predict kids' increasing computers use will make them -- depending on the particular expert -- brilliant or hyperactive or passive or robotic or overweight. As kids get older, parents' fears of online predators and addictions grow. Add to that the juggling act of kids' demands and passion for technology, and computer use often poses a precarious parental balancing act.
"The big challenge that this generation of parents is being faced with, that nobody else has ever had to deal with, is the glut of stuff you have to wade through," says Matt Molen, an Issaquah father of three and co-founder of Simply Fun, a company that creates board games.
While television's impact on children has garnered a great deal of negative attention, computers are typically thought to be more educational and therefore a more positive influence. According to a Kaiser Family Foundation report, 72 percent of parents say computers help their young kids learn.
"This is a sea change in the way we raise our children," says Jane M. Healy, Ph.D, an educational psychologist and author of Failure to Connect: How Computers Affect Our Children's Minds -- for Better and Worse. "I am particularly concerned about the preschool population and infants who are being placed in front of computers. Somehow, for parents, the concept of what computers are for and what they are doing has changed."
Just how much time do kids spend in front of a computer? Here are some statistics from the Kaiser Family Foundation:
- Children age 6 and under average two hours a day in front of a screen.
- 7 percent of kids age 6 and under have a computer in their bedroom.
- 27 percent of 4- to 6-year-olds spend over an hour on a computer daily.
The statistics increase as kids get older. According to the 2005 study "Generation M: Media in the Lives of 8-18 year olds":
- 86 percent have a computer in their home.
- 31 percent have a computer in their bedroom, up 10 percent from five years ago.
- 20 percent have Internet access in their bedroom.
Generation M study notes that children average eight hours and 33
minutes a day of recreational, non-school technology use. They also
often "media multi-task," such as watching TV while looking up
information about the show on the Internet
Depending on the age of the child, computers bring up different questions and concerns for parents. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends no screen time for children under age 2.
"A child's brain development is directly linked to the type of stimuli received in the first two years of life, when the brain size triples," Christakis says. "If an infant is exposed to a lot of rapid-movement stimulation, like that found on TV and videos, their brain becomes conditioned to expect or seek it. Real life seems extremely boring by comparison."
The way kids play in the younger years is an important determinant of brain growth, and the computer's one-dimensional experience is not what kids need developmentally, Healy says, adding that kids need to activate all their senses while engaging in the learning process.
"The human mind needs a greater variety and broader experience in the early years. It needs hands-on, three-dimensional experiences," she says. "There is good evidence that the time kids spend on creative imaginative social play such as grocery store or detective is declining. We are getting kids hooked physiologically on this fast-paced electronic stimulation. As a result, I believe we are seeing a lot of attention problems."
Despite these warnings, popular software is now targeting babies beginning at the age of 9 months, and parents often boast that their toddler could point and click before the age of 2. "This is extremely seductive technology that has been sold to parents under the guise of improving children's minds," Healy says.
"The implicit and explicit claims that they [computer activities] make children smarter or more musical or more mathematical are not true. There is no evidence that these products will make children into geniuses," adds Christakis, a lead researcher in the 2005 study "A Teacher in the Living Room: Educational media for babies, toddlers and preschoolers."
"We comprehensively reviewed all of the scientific literature, spoke with national experts and spoke with the companies themselves. They essentially admit to the fact that they are not doing any rigorous research about their products," Christakis explains.
Some preschool software has the potential for educational value, he notes. "High-quality programs like "Sesame Street" and "Blue's Clues" have been shown to improve children's kindergarten readiness, and to the extent that these other types of technology leverage that, it is possible that interactive programs are beneficial. It hasn't been shown, but it is plausible," adds Christakis, who is calling for more research into the topic.
Many parents try to balance these issues by using filtering devices, limiting time spent on the computer or by allowing only certain types of computer activities.
For Matt Molen, technology is a tool that his family uses for information and education. "We will go out and explore the world together with Google Maps or Earth Google," he says. "You can see the topography of the land. Together we can go to Washington, D.C. and I can share about two years I spent in Chile through pictures we find online.
"We have a philosophy in my house that digital entertainment is a guest, and we want a guest to behave in a certain way and be in line with the family values we adhere to," says Molen, whose kids are 7, 4 and 2.
As children get older and more independent, many of them also become reliant on the Internet, which transforms the computer from an educational tool into a multipurpose device for communicating, Web surfing, downloading music, social networking and playing games.
"There is no greater influence on our children's lives these days, outside of their parents, than the Internet," says Liz Perle, editor-in-chief of www.commonsensemedia.org, which reviews Web sites and other media based on age and content to guide parents in determining what is appropriate for their family.
"The Internet is super playground meets the super mall. This is where kids meet. It is the medium of their adolescence," Perle explains, pointing out that kids use the computer for online connections in a variety of ways: "It is the phone, TV, stereo, it holds their music, their address book, they explore the world, talk with friends, do homework, IM, blog."
Social networking via Internet is the biggest change in this generation's lives because they can be in immediate contact with virtually anyone, according to Perle. "They can be anywhere in the world talking to sexual perverts or talking to their grandparents," she says, pointing out that MySpace.com has a membership numbering close to 70 million, and it adds 170,000 new members a day.
"As a parent, you have to know where your kids are going online," Perle says. Parents must know kids' passwords and be able to track their online histories. She cautions that kids should not surf the Internet alone until middle school, and even then parents need to be actively involved. Filtering devices are useful, she says, but kids outgrow them quickly and find ways around them. Parents should teach kids how to explore the Internet safely and responsibly.
"Parents have to realize that like all tools, computers can be used to construct or destruct, and we stay uninvolved at their peril," Perle warns.
Gail DeGulio, a Bellevue CEO and mother of a 12-year-old son and 9-year-old daughter, spent 20 years working in the computer industry and helped design the first laptop computer. She is surprised at the number of parents who participate with their kids in various activities, but let them spend time on the Internet alone. "I prefer to be in the same room with my son and ask him, 'why don't you show me what you are doing,'" DeGulio says.
"There is a series of questions we have to start asking about the Internet," Perle advises, similar to the questions parents ask when their kids want to go to a friend's house: Where are you going, who will be there, what will you be doing? She recommends that parents set ground rules for computer use, and then build trust to allow for more independence, the same way they do when allowing their adolescents to participate in other social activities.
Families should also discuss online bullies, computer addictions and advertising, experts advise.
Concerns about a decline in language are growing, too, as a result of technology-based communication. With the invention of instant messaging codes and online gaming, parents are seeing new communication forms such as "leetspeak," a system using numbers, symbols and letters to communicate. For instance, 3 is often used as a backwards E, 7 might be T and 8 might replace B or the sound "ate," as in GR8T. The variations are endless and ever changing, but the word "leet" might appear as 1337, lEEt or !EE7.
Jennifer Stone, Ph.D., an associate professor of language, literacy and culture at the University of Washington who studies popular Web sites and online gaming, says the news about computers and language is not all bad.
Stone sees complex use of sentence structure, vocabulary and genre online as well as informational and argumentative text in sites frequented by teens. Additionally, "Kids are compelled to struggle through difficult texts online when it is something they care about, such as a music star or anime," Stone says.
"What is important is to teach kids that your language changes depending on the social situation. We need to work with kids about what type of communication is appropriate where and why, and how to adapt for different situations rather than saying a particular form is bad," she adds.
What about online gaming, the popular teen activity of playing games online with people of all ages and backgrounds, who may be located in another state or another part of the world? "There is a heavy social and goal-oriented aspect," Stone explains. "The kids who are playing are tapping into these powerful networks of adults, and they have to solve complex problems together that they could not solve alone." Stone plays a multi-player online game as part of her research and explains that there are teenagers interacting with high-powered professionals, receiving homework help and college advice.
"When you see a kid sitting in front of the computer, it is hard to recognize just how social and complex that is. What I like to see is when parents are playing with their kids," Stone says.
Jolene Gensheimer is a Bellevue-based freelance writer and mother of three.
Tips for parents:
Liz Perle, editor-in-chief of www.commonsensemedia.org, offers these five ways that parents can help their kids stay safe while using the Internet.
- Never give away personal information, including name, birth date, address, school, age or gender.
- Never meet anybody in person, even if they claim to be a Seattle Seahawk and they are going to give you pointers on football.
- Make some ground rules with your kids about where they can and can't go on the Internet, depending on their age.
- For young kids, keep the computer in a central location and check its history.
- Be involved in your children's lives and immerse yourself in their culture. It won't work to prohibit the Internet; instead, teach you children to use this powerful tool safely and productively.
Kids and technology resources
- www.commonsensemedia.org Provides parent information, tips and reviews of various media, links to articles and studies, offers a free newsletter.
- www.internaldrive.com Internal Drive technology camps, available at the University of Washington.
- www.staysafeonline.org, National Cyber Security Alliance, includes tips, articles, a "how safe are you" quiz, and a link to sign up for free Department of Homeland Security cyber alerts.
- www.theinternetandyourchild.org Internet safety and education program for adults, started by a Seattle detective. Law enforcement volunteers and computer professionals teach free classes which are available for schools and groups.
- www.staysafe.org Funded by Microsoft, the site has sections for kids, teens, parents and teachers. It includes educational games and activities regarding Internet safety.
- www.wiredsafety.org claims to be the "one-stop solution for anything you need help with online," and does offer information about a wide range of topics, including cyberbullying, and cyberabuse. It is the parent site to a number of other sites including www.internetsuperheroes.org, an education and safety site that will appeal to kids.
- www.microsoft.com/athome/security/children Microsoft articles regarding family computer use.
- www.microsoft.com/athome/security/children/leetspeak.mspx Microsoft's guide to leetspeak.
- http://netfamilynews.org A "community newspaper of the digital age," this site is dedicated to Internet literacy for families and offers a weekly newsletter, blog and newsfeed.
- www.isafe.org Internet safety education site with online training videos and mentor program.
- www.netmom.com Site by the author of the Net-mom's Internet Kids & Family Yellow Pages. Her Web site reviews are particularly informative and can help parents locate educational and fun sites.
- http://getnetwise.org, a public service by a coalition of Internet corporations and organizations, it has information and resources about safety and monitoring products for parents.
- www.cybertipline.com To report any child pornography, visit The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, or call the national child pornography tipline at 1-800-843-5678.
- Failure to Connect: How Computers Affect our Children's Minds - for Better and for Worse, by Jane M. Healy
- The Child and the Machine: How Computers Put our Children's Education at Risk by Alison Armstrong and Charles Casement, Robins Lane Press
- Internet Kids & Family Yellow Pages, by Jean Armour Polly, Osborne McGraw-Hill
Illustration credit: Jere Smith