After a study published in the Journal of Pediatrics linked television watching by toddlers between 1 and 3 with subsequent attention problems including ADD, the American Academy of Pediatrics now recommends that children under 3 should not spend any time at all in front a computer or television. For those 3 and up, they suggest no more than two hours of screen time per day for non-homework related activities, even if it's educational.
Jane Healy, a former teacher and educational psychologist, goes a step further. She thinks kids shouldn't start using computers until they're 7. Parents she says, need to realize the harm they're doing when they purchase their preschoolers that first "Reader Rabbit" or "Math Missions" game.
"We are setting up these children's brains for biochemical patterns of inattention and lack of motivation," says Healy, author of "Your Child's Growing Mind" and "Failure to Connect: How Computers Affect Our Children's Minds — and What We Can Do About It."
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A 4-year-old can learn much more from figuring out how to build a bridge with blocks than from any piece of educational software, she says. "He's learning motivation, attention, creativity, and problem solving," she says. "He's increasing finger dexterity and he's building circuits in his cerebellum for balance."
Plus, when a child spontaneously plays, she says, "the impetus or motivation is coming from him, and that's building more circuits in the brain." While a child using educational software "is having all of those things done from outside … If it's coming from outside, the circuits aren't as strong,"
As kids get older, games can be useful, Healy says, but they need to be carefully chosen. For example, if a game has a child do 10 math problems and then rewards them with 10 minutes of shooting aliens, the child is being taught that math is boring. "If children do — quote, unquote — work, then we have to let them do — quote, unquote — play," they're getting the wrong message, she says, when the message should be that "the reward is feeling good about your skills improving."
But parents shouldn't make the mistake of banning a game or television show outright, says Joanne Cantor, a professor at the University of Wisconsin who researches the effects of media violence. When her son was 5, she made the mistake of banning "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles." Nearly instantaneously, she says, he became fascinated with it.
Cantor suggests that if a child wants to play a game, you should rent it or go to a video game parlor so the child can try it. But when you buy, choose something less violent. Several years later, when her son asked for a gun-filled James Bond game, she offered a Tiger Woods golf game instead. "That was acceptable to him," she said.
Similarly, if your kids want to see a shoot-'em-up movie, a parent can try going to see it with them and then discuss it afterwards — asking them if the characters had other options besides pulling the trigger, and how the victim's families must have felt. "But when you do have discussions with your kids, it's important to avoid to coming across as overly judgmental and authoritarian," she says. "Let them come to their own conclusions."
Cantor and other experts also suggest parents try to keep computers in a public place so they can monitor what their kids are doing, and to learn about the games your kids are playing and the sites they're visiting.
"You wouldn't send 10-year-old into Disneyland unsupervised," says California State University child psychology professor Kaveri Subrahmanyam. "It's the same with cyberspace."
By Amy Sara Clark