Written in response to a mom of a 5-month-old who was asking for advice on how much and how early to encourage computer use by her child as she grows up:

I love what technology does for us, but here’s the thing: its pull is relentless. There is no way bright kids today with computer-literate parents and even basic technology in the home will not grow up frightenly capable with computers. What I fear they may lack is the sense of connection to the real. I don’t mean this in a spooky Ender’s-Game-like sense of living a virtual life. I mean that I think that humans are hard-wired to learn from direct experience with the physical world, and that if especially when they’re young (say, under 12 or so) they don’t get copious experience with the direct consequences of their actions they will not develop fully as empathetic, responsible, moral beings. So I think it is pretty cool to play with virtual farms and learn how protecting a breeding stock of poultry will promote strong meat and egg production over the years. But I think that this is not nearly a substitute for incubating eggs in your laundry room, carefully monitoring the heat lamp to nurture those chicks through their tender first weeks, hauling water out to the henhouse twice a day in the depths of winter, and cooking the eggs and meat you harvest. (I realize this is just an example: most urban kids won’t have the opportunity to raise hens like mine have. But I hope you get my point.) In the real world if you mess up you don’t can’t click “Menu>>New Game” and your characters don’t automatically respawn after 20 seconds. Your mess-ups result in dead chicks, or time-consuming and exhausting damage-control, or stress on relationships and loss of trust that needs work to be put to rights.

It’s tempting to think that you can have both: the clean and easy virtual experience and the chicken-poop-on-your-boots type. And I do think you can. I’m trying to create a balance for my kids that allows them to have both. But what I’ve seen over the years is that the virtual, disconnected-from-the-real-world experiences have much the greater attraction for kids (and, I confess, for parents) because they’re so tidy and readily available and easy and low-risk. And so in keeping a balance for my kids I’ve found that my parental effort needs to favour the real-world experiences. I need to work very hard to keep my kids engaged in the dirty, messy, risky, hard-working business of real life, and I need to do absolutely no facilitation at all, and if anything sometimes create obstacles, concerning their engagement with the virtual. When I do that the balance seems to come out about right.

Children and computer use

4 thoughts on “Children and computer use

  • April 20, 2011 at 4:05 pm

    Totally with you. We have been doing “Electronic Entertainment Diet” times as a family (started out doing it for a week at a time, once a month, then decided to switch to Tuesdays and Thursdays every week) for exactly that reason – to remind them of what else is out there in the world. On those days, it's no TV, no computers (except for Dad, who is an IT guy, and Mom checking email – because I do answer the phone), no Wii, etc. for exactly the reasons you mention. I don't want my kids to miss the fact that LIFE is out there. 🙂 (And it's incredible to see the creativity spike when they don't have the electronic “default”)

  • April 21, 2011 at 11:50 am

    A simple technique we have used since our children were very small is to use the time limits facility built into the Mac OS – they get 30 or 60 minutes of computer time but get logged out automatically at the end of it, and just naturally move off into some more 'real' activity at the end of it.

    Unlike Noah, both are simply recreational users, not techies, so I don't think we are stifling them

  • April 28, 2011 at 4:29 pm

    This article is absolutely smack on. It should be published in every parenting mag, sent to every board of education in the country, exploited by every newspaper in Canada and beyond. Real life experiences make kids important members of the family. The boundaries set for them help them define who they are. Their accomplishments lead to some sort of self esteem. If fact the whole article is so incredibly well written it makes me think you must have had one hell of a teacher way back when.

  • May 14, 2011 at 5:36 pm

    Thanks for a very good post, Miranda. You've taken all the complicated stuff out and left the part that matters. Real life is important.

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