Some Say PC Use Reinforces Skills
Healy says her research shows kids who came into the eighth grade not knowing how to use a computer quickly caught up to those who learned how to operate one in kindergarten. She adds there are physical hazards for young children who are "raised by appliances," including eye strain, headaches and fatigue.
Educational experts who help design this software disagree, saying kids can accrue many intellectual benefits from early computer use. Computers are good for reinforcing things children learn on their own, such as relationships between different objects, these experts say.
They add that computers can help to teach youngsters basic language skills, self-esteem and hand-eye coordination. babyWow!, one of the pioneers of software for babies, even claims its CD-ROM--which pictures a baby sporting shades on the jewel case--can boost IQ.
And a trio of titles set to be released this summer by Disney Interactive with Winnie the Pooh in the starring role will help kids "expand their imagination and grow their creative skills," said Jan Smith, senior vice president at Disney Interactive worldwide.
Altadena resident Jane DaCosta, who home-schools her four children (who range in age from 22 months to 8 1/2 years), uses software to reinforce her lessons. DaCosta and her children are one of many families who participate in focus groups moderated by software makers to determine how kids respond to their titles. Her 21-month-old son started participating in these groups when he was 9 months old.
"It does help teach. I know they are learning, and they are enjoying it too," DaCosta said. "Games are better than videos all the time. It's another media they can use--as long as it's not abused."
Just as she does with videos, DaCosta limits the time her children can spend on the PC--usually to about a 30 minutes a sitting.
But anecdotal evidence of intellectual gains by kids who start to use a computer with a mouse in one hand and a teething ring in the other raises alarm bells for opponents of early computer use.
Many say what concerns them most is that parents will start to rely solely on computerized games and toys to teach young children. These critics say they are not modern-day Luddites because they agree that computer use is beneficial for children--older than 6.
"What parents don't understand is that children learn skills when they are developmentally ready," said Susan Haugland, a professor of child development at Southeast Missouri State University. "Quite frankly, parents are misguided with titles such as the JumpStart series that sound like [by using] they'll be ahead."
Proponents of software for the very young disagree that early PC use can be harmful, adding that putting young children in charge of a virtual world familiarizes them with the computer during a time when they're not intimidated by technology.
"We don't see any age limits," Learning Co.'s Kimbell said. "To an infant or a toddler, introducing a computer is like introducing books or TV or a video. It's another modality for learning, and they are extremely open to it."
But the limitations of the PC as a tool for learning were evident in one of the only studies to date on the effect of PC use among kids younger than 5. The study, conducted by Haugland and professor June Wright of Eastern Connecticut University, followed four groups of children from 3 to 5 years old over a seven-month period in the early 1990s. Its goal: to determine how different types of software affect development.
At that time, Haugland found many of the educational titles--which make up about 75% of software available for kids younger than 5--were not effective tools for learning.
Although she used a small sample, Haugland's results indicated that children who used what she terms "nondevelopmental software"--or titles that involve drill and practice activities--spent three times as much time at the computer and had losses in creativity and no developmental gains.
But children in the group who used what Haugland terms "developmental" software--which let kids lead the direction of activity--had gains in verbal and problem-solving skills.
In the End, It's Up to the Parents
Some educators say that regardless of the kind of games, kids who start on a PC at home often are ahead of classmates who aren't exposed to computers.
"Kids who come into kindergarten having already been exposed to some sort of computer learning seem to be more adept at learning to read and following a story," said Barbara L. McMullin, an education consultant at the Casita Center for Technology, Science and Math in San Diego County. "I have never seen an example of it hurting."
But without further scientific study, even software executives agree it's hard to say whether children who are ahead of their peers when they start school have skills that can be attributed to early computer use or to other activities.
"It's difficult to tell if kids learn faster or learn better," said Peter Doctorow, president of Knowledge Adventure, maker of the JumpStart series. "It is absolutely clear, however, that kids are more computer literate the earlier they are exposed to technology."
Ultimately, parents must decide whether the computer is just another educational tool that kids can be introduced to early or whether exposing them to a PC when they're barely out of diapers could jeopardize their development.
"Playing with blocks, drawing and using computers are all providing input to the brain," said Marian Diamond, a professor of biology at UC Berkeley. "Who knows how much original thinking is taking place with each of these activities?"
Jennifer Oldham can be reached via e-mail at email@example.com.