Allie, at age three, can already use a mouse to play her favourite online game, which involves building a human body.
“It astounds me that she can navigate at such a young age,” says her mom, Heather Coman. “I know she is reading words like ‘loading’ and ‘play.’” At the same time, Coman has set limits as to what Allie and her sister, Grace, six, can do online. “There is no social networking, and they don’t know how to do a Google search.”
Computers and the Internet are an indispensable part of modern life, and more and more programs are being developed with the youngest children in mind. Is that a good thing? Should we be allowing kids like Allie to log on?
It depends on the situation, says Diane Bales, a professor at the University of Georgia in Atlanta, who specializes in the use of digital technology in the education of young children. She says experts are increasingly taking the view that computer technology isn’t bad for young kids in and of itself. Children learn through play, whether they’re digging in the sand or mastering a puzzle online. But the computer shouldn’t replace time outside, says Bales, or playing with blocks or reading books.
That can be difficult because children tend to be fascinated with gadgets — hearing a disembodied voice on the phone or seeing a real person talking to you from a computer screen seems magical to them. That’s why Bales recommends that parents set limits on preschoolers’ computer time. (In general, experts recommend limiting screen time — computer, television and videos — to an hour or less a day for kids this age.)
Plus, Bales points out, there is plenty of poor-quality material online. “Steer clear of activities that demand repetitive action and end when a player makes a mistake. They don’t give kids much control,” she says. “Look for interactive websites where kids get to make decisions about what to do.” Bales recommends sites that provide opportunities to be creative — to draw a picture or write a story, for instance. Children need good content, super-vision and enough free rein to let their imaginations take the lead.
Check out a site before introducing it to your kids, and then play together with them, at least some of the time. “The research also shows that learning through computer use is more effective if it’s a social experience, which is why many schools set up computer stations with two chairs,” says Bales.
In Bales’ view, children this young should not be using any social media without supervision. “A five-year-old child doesn’t have a natural sense of what he should and should not share,” she says. “If someone asks his name, he’s likely to give it, and volunteer his address as well.” Some game sites, such as Club Penguin, feature interaction with other players as part of the game. These sites typically require a parent to register a child.