Computers and Kids

I have blogged about this before, but a recent post by a dear friend congratulating a former teacher for taking time out of her retirement to fit out a bus with computers and take this “fully equipped mobile tech center” to the kids to help them get a leg up on education disturbed me a bit and made me recall what I had read some time ago about computers and the kids. It’s not at all clear that getting young children on computers — or any sort off electronic device — will help them develop their minds. The jury is still out on the question, but there is growing clinical evidence that those devices develop the right side of the human brain and leave the left side almost totally undeveloped. In addition, there are “windows” when certain types of brain development must take place in young children or it will never happen.

The problem here is the left hemisphere of the human brain is the side that controls language and thought. The right side is the “affective” side, the side of imagination and emotion. There’s nothing wrong with developing the right side of the child’s brain — unless the left hemisphere is left undeveloped as a result. And that seems to be the case when we rely on computers to teach. In addition, it has been shown that there is a direct correlation between increased computer usage and attention deficit disorder.

Ironically, the schools are on the bandwagon, buying computers for the kids — or accepting them from all-too-willing corporations that are delighted to get the kids hooked as soon as possible. And the parents applaud these efforts, which often include providing the child with his or her very own computer, because they are convinced that this will put their kids squarely on the information highway and on their way to a successful life. They may not support increased salaries for the teachers, but they will gladly see their tax money spent on computers.

Nothing provides us with information as quickly or as efficiently as computers. That much is clear. Moreover, we all know that information is a key to understanding.  It is a sine qua non of all knowing. But it is not alone sufficient. Humans must also know how to process information, separate the wheat from the chaff and determine what is true and what is fiction —  recognize “false facts.” Thought requires the development of the left hemisphere of the human brain and as Jane M. Healy has told us in her book Endangered Minds: Why Children Don’t Think, recent clinical studies of human brain development involving brain scans and MRIs  have shown that electronic devices do not help that portion of the brain to develop. To quote Dr. Healy directly:

“The experiences of children today [involving television and the use of electronic devices such as computers] may be predisposing them to deficits both in effective coordination between hemispheres and in higher-level linguistic and organizational skills of the left hemisphere [of the brain]. They may particularly lack practice in the use of left-hemisphere systems of auditory analysis and in the skills of logical, sequential reasoning.”

Moreover, as Marie Winn points out regarding television in the book referred to above,

“.. a carefully controlled study designed to explore the relationship between television viewing and the language spoken by preschool children discovered an inverse relationship between viewing time and performance on tests of language development; the children in the study who viewed more television at home demonstrated lower language levels.”

Computers, like television, are essentially passive devices — even when “interactive.” They cannot substitute for a human being sitting down with another human being, or several other human beings, and having a discussion. Human interaction, especially at a young age, the telling of stories, reading stories, making stories up, or simply visiting and chatting about the sort of day the child is having are certain ways to help the child’s mind to grow and develop fully — not just on one side. I hasten to point out that we are talking about young children here, kindergarten through eighth grade. There is plenty of time to teach students basic computer skills to help them get a leg up in the job-hunting arena when they reach high school, after the critical windows have closed in early brain development. These skills could at that time be taught along with civics, history, literature, mathematics, and science, subjects that will deepen the young students’ minds and broaden their horizons well.

My wife and I gave a book of brain-teasers to a precocious young child we love dearly thinking it would help her develop her mind and that she would enjoy the challenge. After a very few minutes she was looking up the answers in the back of the book! This is learned behavior. One wonders how often this happens with computers as attention spans shrink. In any event, it is something that would not happen with another human being. There would be give and take, exchanges back and forth, encouragement, hints, and the kind of coaching that goes into good teaching. That’s what should have been happening on the “mobile tech center.” Computers are not the answer to helping young kids learn how to use their minds. Good teaching and good parenting are the answers.

TV And The Human Brain

The thing about studies is that they often confirm what common sense tells us. Most people know that watching too much TV will addle the brain. Moreover, there is evidence that TV watching is addictive. As Marie Winn says in her interesting book The Plug-In Drug, “The entry into another world offered by reading includes an easily accessible return ticket. The entry via television does not. In this way television viewing, for those vulnerable to addiction, is more like drinking or taking drugs — once you start it is hard to stop.”

But more serious than its effects on adults, are the effects it has on our children. Parents tell their children over and over “it will turn your brain to mush.”  Studies since as early as 1972 tend to confirm what we all know in our gut: TV has deleterious effects on brain development. It may not turn the brain to mush, but it doesn’t allow the left hemisphere of the brain to develop properly. It is not only addictive, it is stupefying.

Jane Healy wrote the definitive book on the subject, as I see it, when she wrote Endangered Minds. She was very cautious in her conclusions, but her book draws on a number of studies — such as the ones in 1987 involving Positron Emission Tomography (PET scans) that show that “environmental factors can alter neutron pathways during early childhood and long after.” This was startling news at the time as there was considerable disagreement whether environmental factors had any effects whatever on brain development. But the studies show disturbing effects. Children, especially at early ages, need human interaction. They learn language from humans, not from TV and radio. As a New York Times science writer said at the time the studies were conducted, “The words have to come from an attentive, engaged human being. As far as anyone has been able to determine, radio and television do not work.”

The problem with TV, radio, computers, iPhones, iPods, etc. is that they are not human and they do not engage the brains of the users fully. They are essentially passive media and the user simply acts like a receptor, not fully engaged in what is happening. Note how young children stare trance-like at the TV when viewing their programs.  Even highly regarded TV shows like “Sesame Street” engage only a part of the child’s brain and leave the major portions of it untouched. This is critical because there are small “windows” in the child’s brain development and once those windows are closed, it is difficult, if not impossible, to engage that part of the brain later on. In a word, TV (for example) has long-lasting effects. And those effects involve such vital things as language development. As Marie Winn points out in the book referred to above, “… a carefully controlled study designed to explore the relationship between television viewing and the language spoken by preschool children discovered an inverse relationship between viewing time and performance on tests of language development; the children in the study who viewed more television at home demonstrated lower language levels.”

The hampered ability to use language handcuffs the child throughout school and on into later life. Language is essential to thought and more than ever we need people who are not only articulate, but also able to think through the masses of information that overwhelm them each day and separate the nonsense from the essential truth — if there is any. If this is not always apparent it is especially so as elections come around and voters are called upon to make decisions that can affect them and their descendants for years to come.

In a word, parents would be well advised to turn the TV off for several hours at the end of each day and spend time with their kids talking, telling them stories, reading to them, having them read, and having them make up stories themselves. To refer again to Marie Winn’s  book referenced above, “TV Turnoffs organized by schools and libraries throughout the country. . .demonstrated that when competition from the TV is eliminated, children simply and easily turn to reading instead.” Further, I don’t think we should be overly anxious to have the schools incorporate electronic devices into the early years of a child’s education, either. Human contact and human interaction are essential. The more kids use words the more adept they will become and the more active the left hemisphere of their brains will be — and this is essential to their future success.

And as a footnote to this discussion, it would seem that we should look elsewhere than at our teachers when pointing to low test scores and the inability of our kids to do well in math and language. Teachers might do better than they do, perhaps, but it all starts at home.