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Education Reporter

Experts Speak Out Against Computers for Youngsters 
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A growing chorus of educators, doctors and child-development experts advises that computers don't belong in early childhood and elementary school settings.

Computers can damage the health and intellectual and social development of young children, according to a report called Fool's Gold: A Critical Look at Computers in Childhood released in September 2000 by the Alliance for Childhood. The report asserted that children need stronger bonds with caring adults, yet "powerful technologies are distracting children and adults from each other." It also argued that children learn through hands-on interactions with tangible materials, through play, and by interacting with nature, and that computers displace these normal learning experiences.

A petition calling for "an immediate moratorium on the further introduction of computers in early childhood and elementary education" until it can be determined what effect they have on young children was launched in September 2000. Its signers included Mary Pipher (author of Reviving Ophelia), Harvard psychiatry professor Alvin Poussaint, and psychiatrist Marilyn Benoit.

"Parents have been sold a bill of goods," said neurologist Frank Wilson, who believes long-term studies are needed on the effects of early computer use. (U.S. News & World Report, 9-25-00)

Educational psychologist Jane Healy agrees. "Everything we know suggests that this technology may do more harm than good," says the author of Failure to Connect: How Computers Affect Our Children's Minds — for Better and Worse. Despite the proliferation of "lapware" for children as young as 9 months old, she believes children should not use computers until age 7.

Annual sales of lapware were $16.2 million in 1998 and 1999. A larger number of programs is aimed at preschoolers, with $309 million sold in 1999. Ten years ago, the typical educational software product was aimed at children aged 7 to 12, according to Ann Stephens, chief executive officer of market-research firm PC Data. (Education Week, 5-10-00)

On a typical day, 26% of two- to seven-year-olds spend time on the computer, averaging 40 minutes, according to a 2000 study by Kaiser Family Foundation. "Two-dimension play is not as good as three-dimension play," said Kathy Hirsh-Pasek, director of the Infant Language Laboratory at Temple University. (U.S. News & World Report, 9-25-00)

Computers appear to be no more useful in grade school than they are for toddlers and preschoolers. As Yale computer scientist David Gelernter pointed out, "Children are not being taught to read, write, know arithmetic and history. In those circumstances, to bring a glitzy toy into the classroom seems to me to be a disaster."

"Socialization and values are critical components of early education; it is hard to imagine that the computer enhances either," wrote journalist Jonathan Karl, who has advocated banning computers from all elementary schools. "What do young students do with computers? Play with them, mostly," observed columnist Bob Greene. (Chicago Tribune, 7-07-99)

"Every time I've seen the computer used as if it's a magic bullet that will solve fundamental educational problems, I've seen people disappointed," said Sherry Turkle, professor of the sociology of science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the author of Life on the Screen: Identity in the Age of the Internet. (FamilyPC, September 1999)

"Computers are fragmenting attention spans, to the point where children are losing the capacity to follow a line of thought through chapter or a book," complained Theodore Roszak, a history professor at California State University, Hayward, and the author of The Cult of Information: A Neo-Luddite Treatise on High Tech, Artificial Intelligence, and the True Art of Thinking. He is increasingly alarmed by intellectual deficiencies among college students. (FamilyPC, September 1999)

A 1998 study at Carnegie Mellon University found that teenage computer users show signs of increased loneliness and isolation. Adolescent instant-messaging is a weak social tie, according to Harvard Medical School's Harvey Waxman, principal investigator of the Project on the Internet and Human Behavior.

Some researchers think the problem is not that all computer use is bad, but that some software is better for children than others. "Children can have significant increases in IQ if they use developmental software, but if they use drill-and-practice software, they have significant losses in creativity," said Susan Haugland, a Southeast Missouri State University child development expert who evaluates computer programs. She describes drill-and-practice as software that gives several choices and requires the child to pick a correct response. (FamilyPC, September 1999)

More-recent research disputes that analysis, concluding that drill-and-practice software has repeatedly been shown to work, while problem-solving software works in some cases but not others. The City University of New York (CUNY) study "Computers and Young Children: Social Benefit or Social Problem?", published in Social Forces (September 2003), also found that young children who use home computers for more than eight hours a week spend much less time on sports and other outdoor activities and are substantially heavier than those who do not use home computers.

Another telling conclusion of the CUNY study is that "computers do not currently have a strong impact on student learning because most teachers find them to be of limited utility and hard to deploy in their daily teaching." If so, schools have wasted a lot of money purchasing computers.

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