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.

Ben Kepes

Ben Kepes is a technology evangelist, an investor, a commentator and a business adviser. Ben covers the convergence of technology, mobile, ubiquity and agility, all enabled by the Cloud. His areas of interest extend to enterprise software, software integration, financial/accounting software, platforms and infrastructure as well as articulating technology simply for everyday users.

  • You could make the case that modern technology can enable a richer, more interactive creative experience. The tools available now in any creative endeavour are staggering but I think any technology that reduces the need for actual brain work will ultimately become a crutch. My iron lung theory – It helps you breathe just fine until the power goes off.

    Take the ubiquity of calculators and the corresponding decline in mental arithmetic skills in most of the population. How many times have you seen retail staff that are completely lost without electronic help with all but the simplest calculations?

    I think your approach is the right one Ben – by all means, embrace and use the technology, but don’t forget that life without it again is always a possibility.

  • I can relate. We recently sold our TV so our 2yr old son doesn’t grow up with its constant presence, yet I’m tech marketer.

    Our plan is for him to use it when he is ready. The other day he mimicked us adults and sat in front of the computer moving the mouse around. But it lasted all of 1 minute, then he looked at us as if to say ‘I don’t get what you guys see in this’, got off the chair and played with his toy digger (When he grows up he’s going into construction not software).

    On the other hand, I have heard of 2 and 3 yr olds getting considerable screen time – hence the need for the good work of child safety people like Hector’s World(http://www.hectorsworld.com/)

  • Early exposure to tech tools will limit learning skills the traditional way. For example, Kids learning calculators and computers will lose out on the fun of “mental maths” and developing such faculties. TV and Digital games when they replace physical games(time factor) can affect kids health and attitude when they grow up. The issue is that traditional learning cannot happen at a later stage. Modern technology or updates can be introduced (or will happen anyway) at a later stage as they grow-up.

  • I am hooked on calculators, but not on cell phone or computer. I use the computer solely for useful work, ie, sending messages to and from people (researchwise, businesswise, friends & family). My mobile is on from 9am to 5pm after that, then it is off. Anyone who wants to call me, can get thru to me on my landline if I am at home or otherwise, leave a message.

    I agree with Varadh that exposure too much of technology will kill creativities in children’s minds. I remembered growing up in the village in the islands where we (other kids in the neighborhood) used an empty coconut shell to play rugby with. No one had any toys in those days (parents couldn’t afford them). If a kid had a tennis ball (wherever his parents got it from), then other kids befriended that kid so they could use his/her tennis ball to play with (much better than an empty coconut shell).

    I think that modern society is pampering kids too much, even overprotecting them, as to forbid them from climbing a tree. I wonder , what the future society would be like?

  • You can’t see kids digital world as an add-on to their life… that’s GEN X or BB thinking… I’m a secondary teacher, and the most well-adjusted kids I see are the ones who play a musical instrument (or 9), hang out in a rock band, play heaps of sport AND still make significant use of ICTs to remain connected and to work creatively… when the job market hits the fan… it will be those who can balance their lives with the nuances of a global and connected IT interface that succeed… kids gotta play with this stuff… but in balance with all the cool adventures we managed to get embroiled in when we were kids too! That might be far too hoped for in this day and age when very parent feels they have to play vigilante at the first sign of risk or conflict… chill!

  • @Andrew – yeah, I guess you’re right, well adjusted and multi skilled is the ideal. I guess we’re talking the stuff that will keep sociologists busy for generations to come…

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