In an increasingly technological world, computer literacy is vital. And most parents do not want their children to fall behind. However, some educators and parents have questioned the unbridled embrace of this technology. It's difficult to know when a child should begin learning with computers and whether they stifle imagination and creativity. We also must be aware of how to protect children from potentially harmful websites.
Age Appropriate Content
There is more and more software for the very young. These products imitate early learning experiences, such as matching shapes and learning the alphabet, and some parents see this as a way for their children to get a competitive jump start on their peers.
Joe started his son, Alex, on the computer at 9 months. "I thought of it as an introduction to a machine that is going to profoundly affect his life," he says.
Other parents point out, however, that even talented musicians often do not pick up instruments until the age of 6 or 7 years old, and that the infinite flexibility of children and their sponge-like learning capability means that using a computer is a nonessential step in early child development.
"My son was more interested in baseball than computers when he was 3 years old," says Mary. "I'm sure he'll learn to use the computer when he reaches school-age, but I think it's more important to follow his instincts during the early years."
Letting your toddler take the lead with computers is probably the best course. If they seem to enjoy it, you might want to invest in some early learning software. While this on-screen learning may be no more educational than an old-fashioned game of crazy eights, it is a great opportunity to turn computer time into quality time by doing it together.
By the time children reach school-age however, the computer will probably be a regular part of their school day. Some elementary school teachers use the computer as a reward for finishing regular schoolwork or as a workstation within the classroom for particular assignments. Students can work independently or play learning games with other children. In the higher grades, computer labs are very popular with students required to participate in organized activities at a particular skill level.
Competency for students in lower grades might include basic skills, such as using the mouse, clicking on appropriate icons, and following instructions. Children as young as 6-7 years should be able to do common tasks, like writing and sending email.
Older students should be able to use instructional software in several content areas, understand basic computer vocabulary, and show skill with drawing tools and logical thinking programs.
Computer Uses for Children
Disagreement among some experts concerning the use of computers in grade school seemingly has not decreased the number of children online. However, there is still debate about what kinds of computer activities are most beneficial to learning.
Some educators argue that the power of the computer lies in its ability to provide drill-and-practice exercises that help children master the basics of science, math, or phonics. They claim it is the computer's unique capabilities (like providing instant feedback and offering self-guided instruction) that make it a useful learning tool.
Other educators believe that children should use the computer to build their own knowledge by running simulations or writing and drawing stories of their own. They maintain that drill-and-kill can damage children creative instincts and turn them into automatons only interested in gaining rewards for the right answers.
Some children with psychiatric or behavioral disorders have success with Internet-based therapies.
Stay in Sync with Your Child
As a parent, it is most important that you understand the differences in software and do not assume that all computer activities provide the same kinds of skills or experiences. That way, you can provide your children with the kinds of programs and activities they need at a given point in time.
Staying in sync with your children as they become progressively more adept at the computer can help you track their progress and influence their ability to creatively use the computer in future work scenarios. Don't turn to your children for help. Take time and learn to be as computer literate as your children and keep up with changes in Internet technology.
Health and Safety Issues
It appears that children are not at risk for the same kind of stress-related injuries that affect many adults who spend long hours on a computer. However, they can experience other aches and pains resulting from spending a lot of time in front of the screen, sitting in poorly designed chairs, or working in spaces that are insufficiently lit.
Obesity is a common problem among youth. Too much time in front of the computer or TV screen is often at the sacrifice of much-needed physical activity. Helping your children develop good habits around the computer will serve them well in later life. Here are a few good rules of thumb:
- Use desk lights instead of ceiling lights.
- Place the computer at a right angle to the window to avoid glare and be alert for any sort of flicker that can cause eye strain.
- Teach children to take eye breaks. For example, take a 15-minute break for every hour of computer use.
- Encourage good posture. Have your child sit up straight in a well-fitted chair.
- Make sure your children's feet reach the floor. If they do not, try a footrest.
- Recognize that computers can exert a powerful hold on children's attention. Advise them to change positions to avoid fatigue and to get up and move around on a regular basis.
The Internet and Young Children
As the gateway to a vast resource of information, the Internet can be a profoundly engaging opportunity for your child. However, there are risks to be aware of. Some parents are concerned about their children innocently divulging sensitive financial information. Others worry about inappropriate and sexually explicit websites, social media websites, and chat rooms that leave unsuspecting children open to sexual exploitation.
Protecting young children from these kinds of activities can be done by using filtering features built into Internet browsers. Or, you can install special tools that block inappropriate sites. Some products block certain keywords or have features that allow parents to monitor email, chat, and website activity.
The Internet and Teens
When your children reach adolescence, Internet security presents a different challenge. A natural interest and curiosity in sexuality and sexually explicit material may lead children to use their Internet access to seek out such material and social media sites. In doing so, they may become vulnerable to people eager to exploit their naiveté. While older children can be taught to avoid sexual situations, they may be susceptible to overspending money at online sites that sell music, books, or games.
Monitoring your children's interest in the computer and keeping open lines of communication will help minimize the chances of them becoming victims of online exploitation or irresponsible spending. Teach them how to use Internet resources responsibly and create ground rules about online buying. Talk to about the risks involved in connecting with strangers online. Ask your children to let you know if they are approached online by strangers who get particularly friendly or start asking for personal information. Be aware of the myriad of social sites that teens use to communicate with each other.
Another challenge that parents may face is cyberbullying, the use of electronic devices to threaten or harass other teens (though it can involve adults). Cyberbullying can happen though email, chat, text messaging, and through popular social media sites. The signs of cyberbullying are similar to any bullying, but some additional signs may involve an aversion to a previously favored device or sudden need for privacy or secrecy. As a parent, you need to be aware that you child can also be the cyberbully (it's easier to hide behind an anonymous identification than be face to face). The earlier the problem is addressed, the sooner the problem can be resolved.
Your Job Is to Guide
Preparing your children to be computer capable is essential, but do not feel they must start before they can read. There is plenty of time for them to get online. Once your children are in school, monitor their progress and make sure they are using the technology responsibly. Learning the basics is their job. Helping them find their way along the information highway is your job.
Family Doctor—American Academy of Family Physicians
Mental Health America
Caring for Kids—Canadian Paediatric Society
Cyberbullying. Kids Health—Nemours Foundation website. Available at: http://kidshealth.org/parent/positive/talk/cyberbullying.html. Updated June 2014. Accessed September 26, 2017.
Keeping kids safe online. The Federal Bureau of Investigation website. Available at: https://www.fbi.gov/news/stories/keeping-kids-safe-online. Published January 11, 2011. Accessed September 26, 2017.
Last reviewed September 2017 by EBSCO Medical Review Board Michael Woods, MD, FAAP Last Updated: 9/23/2015