Dei'ah veDibur - Information & Insight

A Window into the Chareidi World

7 Nisan 5766 - April 4, 2006 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly










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Home and Family

Computers and Children
by Leah Raffles

In the world today, one of the issues that we have to deal with is the use of computers. Some people live in communities where there is no 'issue' with computers, as they are simply not used. Others live in places where their use is more common. There has been a lot of concern over the content of what people (especially, though not exclusively, children) might be looking at on the computer, and the risks of the Internet in making it possible to access very inappropriate material.

However, there can be problems that arise from the use of computers that are entirely independent of any problematic content. Problems can arise even when using programs that are basically 'harmless,' or even educational, or religious in nature. Problems arise particularly, though not solely, with games, including hand-held devices. This is not to say that their use has to be excluded completely, because in some places these things are so endemic that exclusion is often not a viable option, but if we are more aware of potential pitfalls, it is easier recognize them and thereby to prevent falling into them.

* The first potential hazard, and one of the most difficult to deal with, is the problem of addiction. This is when a child (or anyone) starts to spend an inordinate amount of time on the computer, to the detriment of other activities, like sleeping, eating, friends, playing other games, homework etc. Again, the content of the activity is not the question here (obviously, violent or immodest games should be forbidden), it is the sense of compulsion the child has, and the amount of time and energy he uses on the activity.

When parents try to limit his use, at this point, the child will often make life unbearable (as it feels to him that this denial makes his life unbearable). The child might find ways to go to a friend's house to use their computer (often lying about where he is and what he is doing). Then parents might have to worry (depending on the friend) not only about the time/addiction element, but also about the content. Addiction is not a simple matter, as it feels to the child as if he has no control, and that he needs this activity. This is the nature of a compulsion.

Therefore, regular discipline methods will often not work, and more individually tailored advice is necessary. This will take into account the age, nature and gender of the child, the degree of addiction, the possibilities of the child going elsewhere, other discipline issues that might exist, and the existing nature of the relationship between the parents and their child. Going 'cold turkey' and banning outright the use of the computer at this point will often not be a helpful solution.

The reason that addiction can occur is because computers are very stimulating. There is an instant response to anything the child does, often accompanied by color, movement and sound effects. Also, the computer is very non-judgmental, and one can try again and again to achieve a higher score and receive no criticism for the failure, and a real buzz when a new high score is achieved.

A weak child will find the very non-judgmental and private nature of the computer very comforting, and a marked difference from all his other learning activities. A very intelligent child, who finds little in his school life that is either stimulating or difficult, will discover the computer provides him with a real test. The 'high' the child gets from this level of stimulation and challenge can become addictive.

Besides addiction, the stimulation the computer offers causes other difficulties. Although a child may get very excited and have a focused interest in whatever is going on on the screen, the activity is essentially a passive one. If a normally active child sits bound by the visual/mental stimulation of the computer, then he will not get rid of his very real physical energy.

If he has been using a game which is very exciting and involves a lot of on-screen physical action, then those parts of the brain will have become active during the game, and adrenaline will be released into his bloodstream, but no corresponding muscle activity will occur. He may therefore find it difficult to relax after a game or fall asleep.

At school, he will be tired and find it harder to control his impulses. As he has a lot of excess energy to expend, and because the learning at school will not provide any of the intensity and emotional 'highs' of his computer experience, he can become 'edgy.' Often this makes him a 'behavioral problem' at school, being labelled 'hyper.' Back on the computer, however, he will 'calm down,' and we will be amazed to see how focused and enthusiastic he can become.

A child who uses this stimulating medium often finds the traditional black and white letters on a page type of learning particularly boring in comparison.

One could question the difference between the addiction to computers and the same compulsion children develop over other hobbies, or even reading, when you find children who seem to do little else. Of course, any activity that absorbs such a lot of a child's interests that it causes serious detriment, should be looked at.

If we find that these children, despite their interest or hobby, function well at school, and are generally content, then one need not be worried. The difference we see with computers is the 'driven' nature of the activity, and the fact that often the children are falling behind and/or are basically unhappy with themselves, and are getting a 'high' from the computer.

This has a lot to do with how the brain is stimulated by computers, as opposed to how reading stimulates the brain. Even deep involvement in a very exciting story involves the active engagement of the child's imagination, whereas on- screen excitement is passive, by-passing the imagination and activating significantly different brain areas.

Even using computers for work-related activities carries its share of disadvantages. It may be so much more beautiful to put up typed work on school walls, and we have generally become intolerant of work that is not well 'processed.' However, for a young child to type instead of write means he loses out on the development of essential skills.

Writing develops more skills than neat handwriting. When writing, a child develops some perceptual skills. For example learning about size (creating letters of uniform size, and fitting on the line), constancy (keeping letters looking the same, not mixing higher/lower case), spatial awareness (keeping letters of one word together, whilst making uniform gaps between words, keeping words straight on a line). They must also think carefully about content and spelling as well.

This is multitasking at its best. It's coordination; it is attention to detail. The computer is very appealing to those children who find all this particularly challenging. However, it is just those children who benefit most from doing it the old-fashioned way, at least in the formative years. Of course, I'm using a computer now, and this allows me to get my thoughts down without having to worry unduly about errors, as I can always edit it later. But once the brain has fully matured, then computers help us get on with our lives without being held back by our limitations. But when the brain is developing, their overuse can limit development.

Computers are excellent at mimicking learning because they hold the attention, but these 'educational' games allow very little hard wiring to occur in the brain. Although the child uses the mouse or presses the keys, this has limited use for the development of hand-eye coordination, which is so essential. To gain this, they need to move real objects in a three-dimensional real world, including moving a pencil across the paper. For example, the ability to move the mouse to drop a picture of a ball on the screen into a bucket on the screen will not enable the child to throw a ball into a bucket, or thread beads on a string, or use a pencil more efficiently.

When someone is showing photos to you, have you ever felt that you need to hold them? We feel, though it doesn't make sense, that we can't see it properly unless we can touch it. Seeing it in the other person's hand just doesn't 'do' it for us, and it doesn't do it for the kids either. It's the same idea as when people often say they can't hear a speaker well if they can't see the speaker.

Some special needs children can benefit greatly from computers, for exactly the same reasons, they are not good for other children. Because they are very stimulating, hold the attention, are extremely patient, very re-enforcing and non-judgmental.

Computers are a very powerful tool, which when used in the right forum, can help us a lot. But they are greatly overused and over-rated in the education of children. If you are letting a child use the computer, let him play on the graphics feature, or the word-processor, or games like solitaire or Tetris (if you don't know, then don't ask!). If they are already busy with other games, then watch how much time they are spending and how stimulating the game.

Teachers have already passed down their verdict on how detrimental it is for a child to have these particularly stimulating pastimes, regardless of the kosher content of the software. In the end, we would like our kids to want to read, to enjoy reading, and to learn from reading.

A child who finds reading a challenge, or the very bright and bored child, can both be at particular risk from over-use of computers. The fact that computers are good tools for adults does not make them suitable toys for children. After all, I don't let my kids play with my oven or my car. And I'm sure they can learn all the necessary computer skills when they get older. Of course, in those places where they abound, they will still be used, but parents should be aware of how much it's being used and of the potential pitfalls.


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