Many parents have become hard-wired into thinking that computers are bad for children. But are they? New research suggests that it's actually a mixed bag.
My son came home from school the other day and showed me a short story he'd written. It was a lovely tale -- full of violence and warfare and even a metaphysical postscript in which you, as reader, realize that you're actually in "hell." In short, it had all the appropriate stuff you'd expect from the imagination of a 9-year-old boy. I told him that I really liked his story, but that he needed to work on making his handwriting more legible.
"Handwriting?" he answered dismissively. "Who cares about handwriting? I only need to learn how to type."
I winced -- a pang of nostalgia for the lost art of handwriting
-- but I had to admit that he had a point. Like it or not, computers are a mainstay of childhood, education and learning these days. And there's no going back.
And of course handwriting is just the tip of the iceberg. Like all parents I know, I wrestle with how much time
to let my son use the computer to play games and check his e-mail. Even though he's an avid reader and football (soccer) player, the zeal with which he plays "Civilization
" and "FIFA09
" during his allotted "computer time" is positively frightening. (He even gets excited when he looks over my shoulder at my
e-mail account. Now that's
Part of my anxiety stems from the fact that the evidence around the use of computers by children is so contradictory.
Let's start with the obvious target: video games. We are told that they encourage violence and sex
among teenagers. No, they don't. They teach essential life skills
like strategic thinking and cooperation.
Computer games are pathologically addictive
. Well, maybe not
Then there's the evidence on computer use more broadly. Computers impede executive function and self-control
in children. Longer screen time yields shorter attention spans
Apparently, computers also have adverse health effects. They cause obesity
in young children and -- this just in -- lead to STDs like syphilis
in young adults. (Yikes!)
But wait! Hang on a minute! Computers also facilitate friendship
. And they increase high school graduation by reducing non-productive activities
such as truancy and crime, making it easier for children to complete school assignments.
It's little wonder that with all this information coming our way, parents are a little unsure as to exactly how bad -- or good -- computers really are for their children. And so many just throw up their hands
and wing it.
I was thus heartened to read about a new study
by economists Ofer Malamud
and Cristian Pop-Eleches
that tries to systematically estimate the effect of home computers on child and adolescent outcomes. (Full disclosure: I know Malamud personally and met Pop-Eleches once.)
The research design and findings are nicely summarized on the New York Times' Freakonomics
blog. Basically, the authors collected survey data from households that participated in a government program in Romania that allocated vouchers for the purchase of a home computer to low-income children. Among other things, the researchers found that children who won a voucher had significantly higher scores in a test of computer skills and in self-reported measures of computer fluency. But the same children had significantly lower scores in math, English and Romanian.
The authors conclude that home computer use has both positive and negative effects on the development of human capital. What does that mean for the layperson, exactly?
In today's work world, computer skills
are increasingly essential to getting a job. According to the Pew Internet and American Life Project, reported in June, about a fifth of Americans don't have Internet access at home. Their profile -- generally older and less educated -- correlates closely with the demographics of those suffering the fastest rises in unemployment, an analysis of data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics shows. (If you want to feel really sobered by this trend, go on over to NPR and look at this catalog of jobs
that have gone the way of the horse and buggy in the Internet age.)
The bottom line? If you spend a lot of time in front of a computer as a child, you'll probably increase your chances of getting a job in the future. But you may not be nearly as literate or good at math as you might have been had you read more books or played more chess.
Which brings us back to my son. At this point in his life, he says he'd like to either become a military historian or "get spotted" as a professional footballer any day now, play for "another 30 or 40 years," and then retire to the United States to pursue a career as an artist.
So I figure that if it's career path No. 1, we better keep limiting his computer time. But if it's career path No. 2, we probably don't need to worry all that much. Perhaps Professors Malamud and Pop-Eleches would care to devise an algorithm to help me figure that one out as well.
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