November 2014 ISSUE

 

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Screen Idol
As a parent you’re interested in helping your children achieve their intellectual potential. Maybe you’re counting on computers and technology to provide a few shortcuts en route to genius. Perhaps you should be giving that strategy a little more thought.
If you’re the typical parent of a young child in an affluent country, chances are you’re reasonably convinced of the merits of computer use as an educational tool. You may even be among the millions of adults who purchase and use lapware—that’s software designed for kids between the ages of six months and two years—thinking you’re giving your son or daughter an intellectual heads-up on the competition.

Maybe not—in fact, there is concern
among some educators that too much screen time can adversely affect your small child’s growing brain.

“Basically my position is that this technology in its current state of development has been vastly—such an understatement—oversold by an incredibly intense marketing campaign to convince parents who are gullible, who are anxious that without early and intensive computer experience, their children are going to get left behind… This is pervasive throughout the media. They’ve tied electronic media into brains and making your kids smarter and the fact is that it’s very possible that these things are actually dumbing children down rather than smartening them up,” says Dr. Jane Healy, an educational psychologist and professional educator for more than thirty-five years—as a classroom teacher, college professor, reading and learning specialist, and elementary school administrator.

Based in Colorado, Dr. Healy is the author of several books including, Failure to Connect: How Computers Affect Our Children’s Minds—for Better and Worse, (available at Amazon.com).

The human brain achieves remarkable growth in the first three years of life—realizing 90 per cent of ultimate capacity, its development dependent on regular and multi-faceted exposure to linguistic activity, motor skills and the forging of emotional bonds with others.

“The brain is plastic, especially in the early years, but really all through the lifetime—but up to age twenty an enormous amount of developmental change is taking place. There are two implications, one is that things that you do a lot with your brain tend to strengthen certain kinds of connections and build those into your permanent apparatus for thinking and behaving and secondly that things that are neglected may get seriously shortchanged in terms of actual mental capacity,” explains Dr.Healy.

By forfeiting traditional areas of human development, sacrificing, for example, oral interaction, listening and storytelling between parent-and-child in favor of time spent in front of a computer screen, some experts, including Dr. Healy believe that irreversible damage is being done.

“It’s a neglect of the circuits that would underline those skills. If you neglect language circuits in the early part of life you’re going to have a permanent deficit. There are sensitive periods all through development and language is one that’s been pretty intensely studied. Basically your language capacity for both learning languages and speaking intelligently and understanding what you read and understanding what other people say—those foundations are laid in the early years.”

According to Dr. Healy, clear evidence exists that language development is suffering—and the ubiquity of the computer screen in the lives of our children is complicit.

“We have an intensive effort to turn children into readers and we can in fact teach them to sound out words, but they do not read… Comprehension scores fall off the charts because these children are not immersed in oral language—they neither hear it and process it nor use it and without that you’re not going to be a good reader or writer.”

A recent international study by the University of Munich involving 174,000 students in more than 30 countries suggests that, contrary to popular perception, students that rarely use computers (or not at all) perform better academically than students who report frequent use.

On its website, (www.allianceforchildhood.net) the Alliance for Childhood, an organization of educators concerned about the impact of computers on children writes about “…repetitive stress injuries, eyestrain, obesity, social isolation and for some long-term damage to physical, emotional or intellectual development."

Further, they give voice to the growing concern among teachers that too much computer use and kids demonstrate deficiency in “generating their own images and ideas.”

In 1998, the American Association of Pediatricians suggested that children under the age of two not be permitted to watch TV or be exposed to computers.

“It’s very reinforcing, it’s very addictive and it’s easy to lose yourself in the virtual world and I think that’s well established—the thing that hasn’t been discussed is the change in intellectual habits that makes it harder for kids to learn. It’s an incredibly significant thing. My position is that children are better off without computers before the age of seven. By age seven, their brains have undergone a great deal of maturation and the basics should be in there. They can start to expand the type of thinking they can do so they can actually start to get something worthwhile using good software, for example, good simulation programs…I think a teacher using it wisely and judiciously—not much—as a part of an entire curriculum can do some really interesting things,” says Dr.Healy.

Also concerning Dr. Healy, is the epidemic of attention deficit disorder, “…and a motivational problem, which we hear about from all the teachers…those habits of mind are also related to early experiences and much of the computer software that is being pedaled to young children—to all children—but young children in particular, encourages fast guess and test, impulsive responding and that’s the hallmark of attention deficit disorder.

“In a susceptible kid, it is my opinion, now we have evidence –we have a good long-range study—that the amount of early TV exposure is related to attention problems at age seven. It is my contention that we’re going to find out that computers are even worse. It isn’t the computer itself, it’s the software, which is being sold as educational, which actually encourages habits of mind, which are antagonistic to academic learning.”

Computer exposure may also significantly affect social skills, particularly among awkward children who are susceptible to social maladjustment.

“It’s very easy for them to get somewhat addicted to this and that, by the way is another major point—that this is an addictive technology that is not being recognized and to screen out those normal social interactions whereby they learn, they develop the brain structures that will help them to interact successfully with other people,” comments Dr.Healy.

Barbara Biggins, honorary CEO of Young Media Australia, a national community organization committed to the healthy development of children, cites advice that appears on the group’s website regarding the potential for children to become addicted to computer games.

“Excessive exposure to games can lead to a number of problems, such as poor eating habits, not mixing with others, poor communication, trouble with school work, social isolation and not paying attention in class.”

System Analyst:

Dr. Healy makes the following recommendations:
  • Avoid computer use in children younger than seven.
  • Be aware of your child’s computer use. Monitor it and maintain quality control.
  • Locate the computer in a central part of the home.
  • Limit time spent in front of a screen.
  • To learn other strategies for making positive and discerning use of media in your child’s life check out the recommendations at Young Media Australia: www.youngmedia.org.au
“There is valid use for the computer as a research tool,” says Dr.Healy, “but then again you need a teacher as well and it’s been shown that children waste an enormous amount of time when they’re surfing, well don’t we all? But they also have to be taught how to use it appropriately, not just cut and paste.”
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