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Coming of Age in the Computer Age

IMAGE In an increasingly technological world, computer literacy is vital. And most parents do not want their children to fall behind. However, some educators and parents have questioned the unbridled embrace of this technology. Just when should a child begin learning with computers? Do computers stifle imagination and creativity? And how do we protect children from potentially harmful websites?

What Is Age Appropriate?

There is more and more software for the very young. These products imitate early learning experiences, such as matching shapes and learning the alphabet, and some parents see this as a way for their children to get a competitive jump start on their peers.
Joe started his son, Alex, on the computer at nine months. "I thought of it as an introduction to a machine that is going to profoundly affect his life," he says.
Other parents point out, however, that even talented musicians often do not pick up instruments until the age of six or seven, and that the infinite flexibility of children and their sponge-like learning capability means that using a computer is a nonessential step in early child development.
"My son was more interested in baseball than computers when he was three," says Mary. "I'm sure he'll learn to use the computer when he reaches school-age, but I think it's more important to follow his instincts during the early years."
Letting your toddler take the lead with computers is probably the best course. If they seem to enjoy it, you might want to invest in some early learning software. While this on-screen learning may be no more educational than an old-fashioned game of crazy eights, it is a great opportunity to turn computer time into quality time by doing it together.
By the time children reach school-age however, the computer will probably be a regular part of their school day. Some elementary school teachers use the computer as a reward for finishing regular schoolwork or as a workstation within the classroom for particular assignments. Students can work independently or play learning games with other children. In the higher grades, computer labs are very popular with students required to participate in organized activities at a particular skill level.

What Constitutes Competency?

Competency for students in lower grades might include basic skills, such as using the mouse, clicking on appropriate icons, and following instructions. Children as young as six or seven should be able to do common tasks, like writing and sending email.
Older students should be able to use instructional software in several content areas, understand basic computer vocabulary, and show skill with drawing tools and logical thinking programs.

What Should Children Use the Computer For?

Disagreement among some experts concerning the use of computers in grade school seemingly has not decreased the number of children online. However, there is still debate about what kinds of computer activities are most beneficial to learning.
Some educators argue that the power of the computer lies in its ability to provide drill-and-practice exercises that help children master the basics of science, math, or phonics. They claim it is the computers unique capabilities (like providing instant feedback and offering self-guided instruction) that make it a useful learning tool.
Other educators believe that children should use the computer to build their own knowledge by running simulations or writing and drawing stories of their own. They maintain that drill-and-kill can damage children creative instincts and turn them into automatons only interested in gaining rewards for the right answers.
Some children with psychiatric or behavioral disorders have success with Internet-based therapies.

What Is a Parent to Do?

As a parent, it is most important that you understand the differences in software and do not assume that all computer activities provide the same kinds of skills or experiences. That way, you can provide your children with the kinds of programs and activities they need at a given point in time.
Staying in sync with your children as they become progressively more adept at the computer can help you track their progress and influence their ability to creatively use the computer in future work scenarios. Don't turn to your children for help. Take time and learn to be as computer literate as your children and keep up with changes in Internet technology.

What Are the Health and Safety Issues?

It appears that children are not at risk for the same kind of stress-related injuries that affect many adults who spend long hours on a computer. However, they can experience other aches and pains resulting from spending a lot of time in front of the screen, sitting in poorly designed chairs, or working in spaces that are insufficiently lit.
Obesity is very common problem among youth. Too much time in front of the computer or TV screen is often at the sacrifice of much-needed physical activity. Helping your children develop good habits around the computer will serve them well in later life. Here are a few good rules of thumb:
  • Use desk lights instead of ceiling lights.
  • Place the computer at a right angle to the window to avoid glare and be alert for any sort of flicker that can cause eye strain.
  • Teach children to take eye breaks. For example, take a 15-minute break for every hour of computer use.
  • Encourage good posture. Have your child sit up straight in a well-fitted chair.
  • Make sure your children's feet reach the floor. If they do not, try a footrest.
  • Recognize that computers can exert a powerful hold on children's attention. Advise them to change positions to avoid fatigue.

The Internet and Young Children

As the gateway to a vast resource of information, the Internet can be a profoundly engaging opportunity for your child. However, there are risks to be aware of. Some parents are concerned about their children innocently divulging sensitive financial information. Others worry about inappropriate and sexually explicit websites, social networking websites, and chat rooms that leave unsuspecting children open to sexual exploitation.
Protecting young children from these kinds of activities can be done by using filtering features built into Internet browsers. Or, you can install special tools that block inappropriate sites. Some products block certain keywords or have features that allow parents to monitor email, chat, and website activity.

The Internet and Teens

When your children reach adolescence, Internet security presents a different challenge. A natural interest and curiosity in sexuality and sexually explicit material may lead children to use their Internet access to seek out such material and sites. In doing so, they may become vulnerable to people eager to exploit their naiveté. While older children can be taught to avoid sexual situations, they may be susceptible to overspending money at online sites that sell music, books, or games.
Monitoring your children's interest in the computer and keeping open lines of communication will help minimize the chances of them becoming victims of online exploitation or irresponsible spending. Teach them how to use Internet resources responsibly and create ground rules about online buying. Talk to about the risks involved in connecting with strangers online. Ask your children to let you know if they are approached online by strangers who get particularly friendly or start asking for personal information.

Your Job Is to Guide

Preparing your children to be computer capable is essential, but do not feel they must start before they can read. There is plenty of time for them to get online. Once your children are in school, monitor their progress and make sure they are using the technology responsibly. Learning the basics is their job. Helping them find their way along the information highway is your job.

RESOURCES

American Academy of Family Physicians http://familydoctor.org

Mental Health America http://www.nmha.org

CANADIAN RESOURCES

Caring for Kids http://www.caringforkids.cps.ca

Health Canada http://www.hc-sc.gc.ca

References

Common questions. Northwest Educational Technology Consortium website. Available at: http://www.netc.org/earlyconnections/questions.html. Accessed December 12, 2013.

Computer health and safety. Lasa Knowledgebase website. Available at: http://ictknowledgebase.org.uk/healthandsafety. Updated October 27, 2010. Accessed December 12, 2013.

A parent's guide to internet safety. The Federal Bureau of Investigation website. Available at: http://www.fbi.gov/stats-services/publications/parent-guide. Accessed December 14, 2011.

Widespread use of information technology by young people is here to stay. Montana Department of Justice website. Available at: https://doj.mt.gov/safeinyourspace/parents-kids-and-computers. Accessed December 12, 2013.

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