Thoughts on Kids and the Net
Should Be Introduced to the Digital World
March 31, 2008
In last week’s column I explored a fatherly dilemma. At five years old, my son Joshua has fairly little exposure to computers and the digital world. He knows his parents use the computer for work and to look things up, and he’s played videogames now and then with a friend of his babysitter, but that’s about it. Meanwhile, some of his friends are experts with a mouse or play games online.
On the one hand, I feel like Joshua has a lifetime of computing ahead of him, so why rush him away from bike riding and Playmobil? On the other hand, he’ll learn, socialize and work in a digital world, so shouldn’t I be preparing him for that, just as I’m trying to lay the groundwork for his learning to read, write and get along with others?
Readers had plenty to say about that. Some advised that Joshua has plenty of time to learn about the Net but not a lot of time to just be a kid. Others shared their experiences raising very wired and quite happy toddlers. Thanks to everybody who took the time to email me, post on the Real Time forum or comment on the Juggle. While every columnist hopes his or her writing generates a response, I was also reading as a father eager for thoughts, perspective and advice. So thank you twice over.
I haven’t come to any conclusions, but I did take one lesson very much to heart, as I heard it from people with very different takes on my dilemma: Let Joshua be Joshua.
Selected responses follow — as always, they’ve been edited for space and clarity. If you’d like to continue the discussion, you can do so in the Real Time forum.
Trent Johnsey writes: My daughter just turned 6, and has discovered computers and the Internet to some extent, though the Nick and Disney Web-site games are the extent of her online adventures, and those are with the assistance of Dad.
Knowing how I am with computer games and being a computer developer myself, I have taken an agnostic approach. If my daughter discovers a computer game she might want to have, then I might consider buying it for her. However, I certainly haven’t encouraged her playing on the computer. Like you, I figure she will have a lifetime of QWERTY to look forward to or dread, whichever the case may be. She need not have any early encouragement from Dad.
Ultimately, I have no desire to rush things. My children will live in a dizzyingly connected world. The farther down the road that world starts, the better off they will be. Right now, they need to concentrate on the basics, and computers are not part of that world yet.
Dianne Atkinson writes: My husband and I worked in technical fields for more than 15 years, so we are both adept at using the computer, printer, Internet and cellphones. But we are also both turned off by how technology seems to rule society — and is not used as a mere tool.
We have devices in the house, but we actively decided not to let technology rule our lives. We eat together as often as possible. We follow routines with our 3-year-old daughter — reading stories, playing with puzzles, going to the park, talking and hugging. The skills humans need — to interact, communicate, share, empathize and sympathize — can’t be taught by computers or the Internet. Young children need to bond with their parents and friends and learn these skills.
I believe very fundamental social skills are being lost. It takes work to learn the technologies that enable us to increase our productivity. It also takes work to actively disengage from those technologies so that we can focus on those values and interactions most valuable to our existence.
Katheryn L. Northington writes: I have often asked myself the same question regarding my kids and the computer. We have a 5-year-old daughter and a 4-year-old son, and neither spends much time on the computer. They have both played a little on the PBS Web site, but that happens once every two or three months. We tend to view computer time and TV time as the same, so if the kids have seen their one-hour max of TV for the day, then there is no time left for the computer anyway.
We have friends with very different habits, admittedly, and I am in no way positive that we are making the right decision. I do know, however, that kids learn quickly, and I think it will be much easier to teach them the necessary computer skills when the time comes than it would be to break a possibly more-harmful habit of “too much” computer and not enough outside/independent/imagination-required playtime.
I would like to think that we are not holding on to a childhood past, but attempting to preserve what proved to be the roots of our success as more-or-less intelligent, active, healthy adults.
Joseph G. Herlihy writes: My sons Joseph and Joshua (a.k.a. “Jaja”) are 2 and 1, respectively. Joseph understands that Daddy uses the computer for work and, when asked to “work,” will eagerly begin play-typing. His big computer experiences have been the PBS Kids site for some simple games and YouTube for truck and animal videos.
My wife and I have no TV and are all about Lego bricks and simple toys. I think that we are both on the right track regarding minimizing the use of computers and emphasizing creative play. I want my sons to be able to be able to be able to think more completely about a subject and not suffer the attention deficit I know I’ve picked up by skimming from subject to subject and rarely taking the time to go deep.
I have always been a technology advocate: Mine was the first class at the U.S. Naval Academy to be issued computers back in 1986, and I remember feeling so in awe of that big, hulking box with two 5 ¼ floppy drives and no hard drive. And, as a management consultant now, I really live and die by how efficiently I am able to use technology in front of me. But I think the critical-thinking skills that come from tactile, hands-on play and imagination are much more important than anything they will learn on the computer at this early stage.
Forum member Gary B. writes: I have three kids — ages 10, 8 and 6. Despite being a technologist, I did nothing to push my children to use computers. Instead, the marketing geniuses for Ganz (who makes Webkinz), Club Penguin, and other social-media sites directed at kids in that age range pushed the kids there for me.
Don’t rush it — your son will start getting pressure to get on the computer from his friends in a couple of years. For now, let him enjoy the simplicity of life prior to that distraction and pressure. Afterwards, it’s just one more element of “screen time” (in addition to Wii, TV, etc) that you will have to limit.
Pam Nelson writes: In this very different digital world, one thing remains constant: Children have a natural curiosity about things, and they do better developmentally the more they are allowed to explore things they can see, hear, touch, smell and taste. Once the computer grabs his attention, you’ll wish you hadn’t let the genie out of the bottle yet. Let your son explore his real world fully — taking things apart, getting muddy in the backyard, playing with his friends as they build skyscrapers out of cardboard boxes. These are the real pursuits of childhood, and he won’t easily go back to exploring them once he’s plugged in.
If he is your first child, it feels like every decision you make is really important, especially during those preschool years. Trust me, I remember — and yes, they are! And yet, I’ve gained more perspective about those years now that my kids are 11 and 15. I have to admit that many of my earlier, very earnest deliberations about what is best going to serve my children were noble, but not nearly as important as just allowing them to fully explore their world on their terms, and trusting that they would show me what they were ready for when they were in fact ready — on their schedule, not mine!
Forum member mabiggs writes: We have a 6-year-old and a 4-year-old, and my Microsoft husband and I have debated this question at length. We always come back to the idea that the kids can pick up the technology later — but what are the odds that they will find time later in life to climb trees and dig in the dirt?
I also got many thoughtful comments from people whose kids have computers or other digital devices playing a more-active role in their lives.
Steve Stringfellow writes: My son just turned 3, and the part of the digital world he moves most easily in is cameras. He has taken over my Canon Elph: As long as he keeps a strap around his neck it is reasonably indestructible. On a three-day trip to Santa Fe, he took 348 pictures. He has a definitely a different eye for images than an adult: While he is interested in people, most of his pictures are taken low, looking up high. He is more interested in objects, primarily toys. He has a series of pictures of a plastic cow. And there is the “crib as prison” series taken while waking up from nap.
While any settings he changes are fairly random, and he has no clue about zoom, his yield on decent pictures is at least as good as mine. He feels no need to park a child in front of any image, which helps a great deal. And printing a few pictures, primarily from the cow series, can be the highlight of his day.
Forum member cvanderbush writes: My 5-year-old uses a computer to play games at nickjr.com, noggin.com and pbskids.org. He knows that if we ever need an answer to a question about anything we can “ask the Internet.” Google Earth lets him explore around the world and reminds us of places we’ve been to together. He likes typing letters and (now) words in Word. He enjoys scanning his drawings and paintings into Photoshop, which we put on our family Web site for relatives to see.
But there is also value in playing games. We play the two-person cooperative game Lego Star Wars together on the Wii. My son has learned the importance of teamwork, that problem-solving takes patience, and that practicing something really does make you better at it. We’ve been stumped many times and really had to “use our noggin” to make a breakthrough and when we do, we share some really great “Aha!” moments.
It’s true, some children become obsessed with video games. But are these obsessions any worse than the ones we had growing up in the ’70s? In second grade my brother could tell you how many touchdowns Roger Staubach threw, how many yards Tony Dorsett rushed for, how many yards and receptions Lynn Swann had, how many sacks Jack Hamm had for multiple seasons. Back then, that was considered healthy. Is it really any different than knowing what character you need to use in Star Wars Episode 4, Level 3 to be able to jump high enough to get the last minikit that earns you another gold brick and unlocks Boba Fett’s ship?
Thomas F. Anglero writes: I wrote a comment on “The Juggle” saying that the time that parents spend with kids on the Internet is the same quality time that parents have always spent with their kids at bed time reading a story or just talking. We parents are living in a time where we don’t have a childhood reference to rely on and that makes us uncomfortable. Ignoring this feeling is not the answer — communicating is. At WiHood we are working with schools in Oslo, Norway to communicate this directly with the parents and with organizations in New York City to do the same and provide WiHood to families in NYC. I share your concerns and thoughts and as I said, I created WiHood to do something about it!
Mr. Anglero is the chief executive of Wihood.
Forum member johnfalck writes: My 4-year-old has his own login (clicks on the frog logo that has his name). No admin rights. I removed all icons on the desktop except a couple — e.g., Firefox as the browser, and that without the URL line (unclick navigation toolbar). I set his homepage to pbskids.org, with a few other related icon links (Noggin, etc.) along the top.
So far he has not deleted any files, reset BIOS settings, or ended up on eBay — all things he did at age three when he started banging away on someone else’s computer. My advice: Don’t confuse the ability to do bad things with interest or understanding. (“Daddy, why is the computer screen blue?”) Give a child their own login and make it as safe (limited) in functionality as you can or as is appropriate for the child’s age.
Re the importance of balance: Computer play is not a right. My son will start by saying, “I’ve been pretty good today, can I play on the computer?” And once the snow melts there will be more “go and play outside” instead. But when I’m trying to cook dinner and keep an eye on his 18-month-old sister, 20 minutes of computer time for him sounds great to me.
Forum member joeyjunior writes: Our son is 5 years old as well and has had his own desktop PC since he was 3. We got him his own inexpensive PC, primarily so he would not accidentally wreck our other PCs by downloading something or hitting the wrong keys. We keep the PC in the family room, have it locked down with Internet-monitoring software, and participate with him when he uses it.
Our objective was not to make him a super computer geek — on the contrary, we wanted him to consider a PC an everyday appliance. I deal everyday with technophobes, tech geniuses and everyone in between, and I have found that there is a fascination curve with technology: Once the “Oooo, ahhh, wow” factor has run its course, most people use their PCs as tools. We simply wanted to accelerate that curve.
So far it has worked well: Our son is not obsessed with the PC, ignores it for weeks at a time, and is rarely on it for more than 45 minutes. We have been fully prepared to allocate computer time and require him to go outside and play, but by having the PC always available, it’s not a big deal to him and he keeps his use to a minimum. Like it or not, computers are here to stay — best to get the fascination over with and teach children responsible computing from the start.