Computer crash course

Everyday amazements


Dan Baron


My daughter Dina, who turns 5 next month, happily clicks on the computer mouse and two goofy-looking animated dragons zip around on the screen.

I know I’m getting older because I’m astonished at my daughter’s comfort level on the computer. Astonished, and very curious.

Every parent I know talks about how fast kids grow up. But what about how fast the media age is speeding up? How can I make enough sense of this stuff to be reasonable about it?

This is a loaded subject, of course, whether one is talking about monitoring what kids are exposed to or sometimes encouraging them to turn off a blinking screen.

Educating myself about how my kids interact with computers is becoming a bigger job all the time.

One expert on children and media suggests that understanding the impact of modern technology is a slippery issue because it’s always changing.

“We can’t just say what the effect of technology—from video games and the Internet to television—have on children, because it advances at such a fast rate,” says Douglas Gentile, director of research for the Minneapolis-based National Institute on Media and the Family and a professor of psychology at Iowa State University. “There are so many things we don’t know. That’s disturbing, because we’ve created a grand experiment with kids as the subject.”

In 2003, the Kaiser Family Foundation released “Zero to Six: Electronic Media in the Lives of Infants, Toddlers and Preschoolers.” Among the findings: More than one-third of 4- to 6-year-olds use a computer several times a week or more. The report called for more research on the impact of new media on child development.

On the most basic level, I ask myself whether spending time on a computer is a good thing for my preschooler. My answer is yes—within limits.

I try to keep a few things in mind when I sit down with my daughter at the computer:

Is she engaged in what she’s doing, or is she just staring at the screen?

Does it challenge her?

What is she learning?

Dina likes to play games on, and a couple of other Web sites. But she doesn’t need the Web to be entertained. She’s just as intrigued by typing away and filling a blank screen with letters, numbers and symbols.

The common denominator is that she’s often learning new skills, having fun and—we hope—learning things that are appropriate for her age.

Gentile emphasizes the many benefits computers can have for kids.

“Computer games often have clear objectives and different levels of difficulty, so they can adapt to the prior knowledge of the learner. That’s exactly what a good teacher does,” says Gentile, father of a 7-year-old daughter.

“Learning on a computer is also often what we call active learning, where the learner is involved in getting immediate feedback and practicing is distributed across time,” he says. “That makes sense, because that’s how kids play—they focus on something for a few minutes or half-hour or hour a day.”

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends parents limit “screen time” (that includes television, videos, computers and video games) to one or two hours per day. My wife Nancy and I restrict the amount of time my kids can spend on a computer (or watching TV), but try to be flexible about it. I think the two-hour limit makes sense for my daughter.

The bigger issue is her little sister, Ally, who’s nearly 2. Pediatricians say kids under 2 should not spend any time in front of a computer or TV at all. I find that standard to be too strict for my house, especially since Ally spends so much time following her older sister and sitting, transfixed, while Dina plays on the computer.

The biggest issue here for me is not how much time my daughters spend in front of a computer. It’s what happens when they are away from it.

I pay attention to how well Dina is reading and writing—the skills I grew up thinking of as the basics. I am watching to see whether her attention span is being short-circuited by her focus on the computer or TV.

So far, I don’t think so, but it can be very hard to tell. This, I suspect, is a topic we’ll be talking about in our house—and in our community—for many years.

“It’s really important that parents are interacting on the computer with their children—especially young children,” says Patti Miller, director of the Children & the Media program at Children Now, a national research and child advocacy organization based in Oakland, Calif. “It’s also really important for parents to talk to other parents, since parents are a great resource for each other.”

Meanwhile, I remain steadfast about two of my favorite rituals as a parent that don’t involve tools of the modern age.

The first, of course, is reading a story to Dina every night before bed.

The second is the daily ritual of getting ready for work each morning while Dina charges at me with a marker and paper in hand. She wants to know how to spell a word so she can write it down on a piece of paper. Then another. And another. I tell her.

I am thrilled, even as she interrupts me. Still, I wonder: How long will it be before she starts scanning these words and images and e-mailing them to her friends? What will she know about computers in five years?

All of this is a little hard to fathom, but I’m sure I’ll keep asking questions. Right now, my daughter and I are about to get on the computer again. This time, she quickly grows weary of the fast-moving dragons in front of us and we search for another adventure together.


Dan Baron and his family live in Evanston. You can reach him at [email protected]


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