Are Computers Bad for Kids?

My son’s teacher sent home a clipping from the newspaper, with the headline “Screens Damage Young: Expert”. According to the article, a UK psychologist “is demanding” that computer screens not be used in the education of kids under 9.

I was somewhat intrigued, wondering who this guy is who feels he can “demand” that certain educational tools not be used (his name is Aric Sigman, by the way). Here’s what I found out.

  • Aric Sigman doesn’t have the “badge” of a good research scientist – namely, a track record of publication in a variety of peer-reviewed academic journals. This doesn’t mean that he’s wrong, but it does mean that his ideas have not been put through the hard microscope of criticism by other experts in his field. Therefore, I’d say, he’s not in a position of authority to “demand” that educational policy line up with his ideas. His status as an “expert” has not been tested by that particular microscope. Well, maybe the words “expert” and “demand” were put there by the reporter, and Aric Sigman actually merely “recommends”.
  • More importantly, I found out that his ideas are controversial. There is evidence both ways. There have been reports that TV, for example, does no harm to the learning abilities of babies, or that surfing the net can help stave off dementia. Perhaps, as these people allege, Aric has cherry-picked the evidence, and isn’t presenting both sides of the story. I’d say that the jury is still out on whether screen technology harms, or helps, or does a bit of both.

An interesting point made in the article is that growing kids need experience in the real world – running, jumping, making things with their hands, and so forth, and that too much time in front of a screen takes away time they could spend doing “real-world” activities. Personally, I believe that the activities kids do become the activities they will be good at in the future. For example, the hours I spent in front of the Atari, C64 or Space Invaders and Galaxian machines as a kid mean that now, I can quickly win at any game on Nitrome or Miniclip. This is why I’ve dedicated time to making a website full of math games for kids – my hope is that the kids who play with math now will be good at math as adults.

So I’d disagree with Aric, that kids should be kept away from screens until they are nine – after all, it’s likely that interacting with screens will be an important part of their adult life, and they’ll be better at it for having the experience now. Even if you think this unimportant, keep this in mind – if you cut screens out of young kids’ lives, you cut off some fantastic computer-based learning resources, such as Timez Attack and Arithmemouse for arithmetic, or Starfall for basic reading, or Sesame Street (oh, and of course my own online math games 🙂

Since the jury is out on Aric’s assertions, and since there’s many fantastic educational resources that actually need a computer or TV, my advice is

  • ignore people who tell you to chuck out computer screens altogether, and
  • take an active hand in moderating and directing your kids’ TV/computer use, making sure they get good healthy doses of educational and informational stuff.