In 1993 the government of Canada adopted a new initiative, computers for schools (CFS). Surplus federal computers were distributed to schools and libraries in all provinces and territories across Canada . Since that time CFS has donated over 300,000 computers with an additional 60,000 being delivered each year.
Underlying this initiative is an obvious assumption. Computers are good for kids.
But are they?
There is little doubt that computers are becoming more and more necessary for kids. With computers playing an integral part in school curriculum and extra-curricular learning, parents feel pressured to equip their children with the latest computer technology. Children are playing games, doing school work, talking with friends, and surfing the Internet on school, library, and home computers.
Parents worry that their children will be left behind if they do not become technologically literate even at a very early age. According to a 2003 survey by the Kaiser Family Foundation, 31% of children aged three and younger are already using computers.
But the idea that computers are good for kids? This notion likely evolved out of a need to justify the onslaught of technology in our children's lives.
The movement to computerize our homes and schools is miles ahead of the research. The implications of such a move are largely unknown.
Do computers make kids smarter?
Research on the educational benefits of computer-based activities is limited. Playing computer games has been linked to improvements in certain visual intelligence skills specific to the use of computer technology. In other words, using computers makes kids better at using computers.
Perhaps not a surprising finding given that prolonged regular practice improves almost any skill.
Researchers have found a small but significant association between home computer use and improvements in academic performance. But there is no commanding body of evidence that computer use improves academic achievement.
We should also weigh these findings against studies showing a possible link between academic improvements and a number of intrinsically valuable activities such as music, art, and sports. Researchers at the University of Toronto found that children who received 36 weeks of keyboard or voice lessons showed greater improvements in IQ and academic achievement than a control group of children who did not receive music lessons.
An undisputed benefit of computer-based technologies is their role in helping children with special needs. Children who cannot participate in traditional educational programs because of specific learning disorders, emotional problems, speech and hearing impairments, blindness, and even severe physical disabilities have all been helped through computer technology.
In general, the risks associated with children's computer use are due to either (i) engagement in inappropriate activities or (ii) excessive time spent at the computer.
Some of the dangers are undeniable. Few would question the risks associated with children's access to cyber-pedophiles, pornography, and inappropriate content.
Computer games for children are becoming increasingly violent. Not surprisingly, kids prefer competitive aggressive games over games that encourage positive pro-social behaviours. Parents are often unaware of the extent of violence in the games their children are playing on a regular basis.
In a recent review of the literature, researchers at Iowa State University conclude that violent game playing increases children's aggression and hostility and desensitizes them to violence. Increases in aggression have been shown to generalize to situations beyond video game playing.
Perhaps one of the greatest risks associated with children's overuse of computers is the displacement of other essential and potentially enriching experiences.
Computers are mesmerizing. Internet surfing and computer games easily distract children from other off-line activities, often for extended periods of time. Some researchers suggest that spending a disproportionate amount of time on any activity hampers a child's social and educational development.
Cyber-interactions are impoverished compared to live contact with friends, family members, teachers, and nature. Communicating primarily through the Internet shuts kids off from the essential elements of relationship. The magic of human interaction depends on being present.
Research on the physical impact of children's computer use is still in its early stages. However, researchers predict that children will begin experiencing the same kinds of injuries to wrists, backs, and eyes, frequently seen in adult computer users.
Preliminary findings suggest that extended computer use in children is linked to repetitive stress injuries and an increased risk of obesity. Excessive game playing is associated with a form of tendonitis. Quickly flashing images in some video games have caused seizures in children with photosensitive epilepsy.
We know from research on adult computer users that injuries are often due to incorrectly positioned equipment. Researchers at Cornell University studied the ergonomic appropriateness of workstations in six school facilities for children grades three to five. All schools were found to have computer stations in which children's postures placed them at high risk for the development of musculoskeletal disorders.
Oxford researchers blame computers in bedrooms for the finding that children are getting two to five hours less sleep a night than their parents did at their age. Computers are tempting alternatives to going to sleep. The long term effects of repeated interference with bedtime routines and decreased sleep time are unknown.
Virtual experiences are becoming more popular in games and on the Internet. Studies show that some children have difficulty distinguishing real from artificial life. The implications of this finding for young children's developing identities are uncertain.
Some researchers speculate that the instant gratification associated with today's technology is contributing to reduced frustration tolerance in children. With less tolerance for frustration, children might be less able to adapt to the challenges of life.
In summary, research both for and against children's computer use is in its infancy. Some claims are more established than others. Some are mere speculation. Many of the available studies are methodologically flawed relying on unreliable self-report data.
In the end no amount of research will provide us with definitive answers. For example, it is unlikely that we will ever know the extent to which computer use has displaced important activities in our children's lives.
This means that we must rely on what we do know.
What do we know about our children's needs?
We know that children need direct human contact, kindness, and genuine interaction.
We know that the mesmerizing quality and the potential dangers of so many computer activities require that we supervise our children's computer time.
Most parents are intuitively aware of the possible hazards of too much or inappropriate computer use.
The risks associated with children's use of computers arise from either engagement in inappropriate activities or excessive time spent at the computer. This means that parents can dramatically reduce or even eliminate risks simply by monitoring their children's computer activities. With close supervision, computer over-use and participation in inappropriate activities can be prevented.
Dr. Arlette Lefebvre, a psychiatrist at The Hospital for Sick Children, goes beyond recommending that parents supervise their children. She urges parents to actually participate in their children's online journeys. "you really do need to become familiar with the digital forces shaping your children's futures." Lefebvre, co-author of Taking Your Kids Online, describes the many ways that parents can become a part of their children's Internet learning experience. "Parents cannot count on schools to make their kids Internet fluent."
Lefebvre also cautions parents to be aware of signs of addictive-like behaviours sometimes associated with children's excessive video game playing.
To maximize the benefits of computer learning, parents should become involved in their children's computer-based school work just as they would with regular homework. Researchers at the University of Loughborough have found that children who use computers at home usually do so without adult guidance. Computer learning is most effective when it is interactive, monitored, and used in coordination with active learning.
It is unfortunate that government initiatives to give kids access to computers are not paralleled by similar initiatives for arts education. With an emphasis on technology, school budgets are increasingly devoted to expensive computer equipment while basic maintenance, books, and arts programs are being neglected.
Arts programs should remain hands-on and not be subjected to the mechanization seen with so many of today's activities for children.
We should not be fooled by software packages that claim to enhance children's creativity. Cutting and pasting prefab images is no replacement for creating original handmade art.
The essence of art and music cannot be computerized.
It is time to critically examine the role of technology in our children's lives.
Further, we must continue our inquiries into the potential harms associated with children's computer use.
As computers play such a significant part in our children's lives, it is essential that we understand the implications of their use. More research is needed to determine the recommendations that maximize the benefits and minimize the negative impact of regular computer use.
By providing children with opportunities to increase their computer skills, we are preparing them to live in an increasingly technological world. But we should be aware that the need to keep up with society's technological demands is by no means the most important part of our children's healthy development.