I have to say I’m a little reluctant to write this post, it’s a subject that inflames passions on both sides of the debate.
I was at a conference a few weeks ago where one of the sessions discussed kids and computers – while the session was primarily concerned with discussing the tools available to teach children programming and the like – I attempted (somewhat unsuccessfully it must be said) to subvert the discussion into a more existential one – specifically should young children use computers at all and when is an appropriate age to start?
I have to declare split interests regarding this subject – my children are experiencing a somewhat unique upbringing – we don’t have a TV, they spend a lot of their time doing craft work type things and my wife and I make a concerted effort to shield them somewhat from the technological and societal realities of modern adult life. On the other hand I’m an early adopter that is never more than a few meters from a web enabled device of one sort or another, and who spends a fair amount of his waking hours discussing the subtleties of microblogging, social media and "The Cloud".
So… is early use of computers a net positive or negative influence on children?
Nick Carr blogged about the UCLA’s Memory and Aging Research Centre latest research on the effects of Internet use on the brain. Centre director Gary Small wrote that;
The average young person spends more than eight hours each day using technology (computers, PDAs, TV, videos), and much less time engaging in direct social contact. Our UCLA brain-scanning studies are showing that such repeated exposure to technology alters brain circuitry, and young developing brains (which usually have the greatest exposure) are the most vulnerable … More than 300,000 years ago, our Neanderthal ancestors discovered handheld tools, which led to the co-evolution of language, goal-directed behavior, social networking, and accelerated development of the frontal lobe, which controls these functions. Today, video-game brain, Internet addiction, and other technology side effects appear to be suppressing frontal-lobe executive skills and our ability to communicate face-to-face. Instead, our brains are developing circuitry for online social networking and are adapting to a new multitasking technology culture.
Now going back a step, one could ask the question whether the traditional skills we learnt and used are valid or necessary under modern society. In fact the question came up at the conference session when an attendee contended that traditional skills (and I lump them under the moniker of "old creativity" – drawing, fairy stories, invented play and the like) are no longer necessary, their utility replaced by a new web augmented reality.
If you subscribe to this perspective than my post will appear to you as a nonsense – an attempt to return the world to some ideal that only exists as a memory. To those folks I’ll appear to be one of the people in the following video;
I however don’t believe that we’ve moved on from traditional skills and values. There is a reason for a return to farmer’s markets, community gardens and artisanship generally – people wish to reconnect to traditional values and ways of living – the contention that many people share is that early exposure to the leading edge attributes of modern life limit peoples abilities to make these reconnective leaps.
Yes, I’m prepared to be lashed – after all the readership of this blog believes in the promise of a brave new world (as do I). I’m just not sure if we should think long and hard about how much of the old world we wish to leave.