Not everyone, however, is sold on the virtues of early computer use. Critics point out that the skills computers teach can be acquired just as easily through old-fashioned, low-tech activities -- as indeed they were before the proliferation of PCs. In a recent report, the Alliance for Childhood detailed the potential hazards of computer use among young children. The report concluded that an overreliance on computers can give rise to the sorts of problems long associated with television use: stifled natural creativity, hampered social skills, and health effects such as eyestrain and obesity.
"Young children need a hands-on relationship with nature and the physical world around them, not interaction with machines," Cordes says.
Jane Healy, Ph.D., an educational psychologist in Vail, Colorado, and an outspoken skeptic of widespread computer use by youngsters, goes even further. "These children are not formulating language or expressing their needs," Dr. Healy says. "They're pushing a button to get their needs met. It's causing language use to diminish."
Dr. Healy, the author of Failure to Connect: How Computers Affect Our Children's Minds and What We Can Do About It (Touchstone Books, 1999), believes that, as with TV, allowing children too much exposure to computers at an early age can be detrimental to the developing brain. "The first three years of life are when children learn the foundation for creativity and develop critical motor skills," she says. "It's a time when kids should be encouraged to experiment and interact with people and their surroundings -- not to sit in front of a screen."
Most experts take the middle road, pointing out that the keys to making the most of computers are moderation and realistic expectations. No parent should park a child in front of this electronic baby-sitter. "In the end, software is just like any other interactive toy," says Susan Fryer Patrick, who designs educational programs for the Learning Company, in Novato, California. "It's one more way for kids to explore the world."
Copyright © 2004. Reprinted with permission from the February 2001 issue of Parents magazine.
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