An Extreme Reaction?

Americans spent $424 million on educational CD-ROMs for their children last year. That's a lot of money invested in software whose aim is to keep children glued to computer monitors, and a troubling number for a group of parents and educators who last week issued a report titled "Fool's Gold: A Critical Look at Computers in Childhood." The Alliance for Childhood, the Maryland-based child-advocacy group that underwrote the report, called for a "timeout" from the headlong rush to technologize schools, based on a report that examined 30 years of research on the effects of computers on childhood development.

"Fool's Gold" argues that the use of computers have had no proven positive effect on children, and may even be physically and intellectually harmful, especially for those under the age of 11. "A heavy diet of ready-made computer images and programmed toys appears to stunt imaginative thinking," says one passage. The report also says that computers expose kids to adult hazards like bad posture, repetitive-stress injury and social isolation. It's a grim tally--long overdue, some say--but it doesn't mean you should junk your PC.

Co-editor Edward Miller says the report's primary discovery is that we don't really understand the effects of computers on kids. "People assume the computer is useful for teaching children how to read and do math," Miller says. "But if you look at the studies there's almost no evidence that they make any difference at all. Some studies show small gains, some show losses." In this light, does it make sense, the report asks, for the federal government to advocate spending an estimated $8 billion this year to further computerize public elementary schools? (The report's full text is available at

Miller, a former editor of the Harvard Education Letter, stresses that the report should not be interpreted as a blanket condemnation of computing. Rather, it's a plea to parents for moderation. "Parents think that if their kids can be comfortable with and excited by computers as early as possible that will somehow guarantee a secure economic future," he says. "Computers obviously have some wonderful uses, especially in middle and high school. [But] what's good for older kids is not necessarily good for younger kids, and rushing them can be counterproductive."

Some experts are irked by the apocalyptic overtones of the alliance's report. "I think it's a really extreme reaction," says Warren Buckleitner, editor of the Children's Software Revue in Flemington, N.J., who cautions against scapegoating computers in general. "The real enemy here is bad software." Buckleitner believes that computers are good for kids, even young children, if they are used to supplement work in school and time with friends and family, not replace it. He adds that good educational software has some unique advantages over studying alone with books and paper: instant correction of errors; being able to sense when a child is struggling and provide help on the spot; the ability to repeat an exercise over and over without passing a judgment on one's progress.

Don't confiscate the PC, he says; instead follow some common-sense guidelines for creating a healthy computer environment for your children. Start by picking quality software. Buckleitner's bimonthly magazine reviews a majority of the edutainment software CD-ROMs released annually; in 2000, he estimates that some 800 new titles will cross his desk, only a tiny portion of which will be outstanding. He and his staff of editors and family testers grade each for usability, educational value, design and, of course, the fun factor. Buckleitner offers these tips:

Don't assume that a brand-name publisher always puts out quality merchandise. For example, Simon & Schuster Interactive, the multimedia arm of the well-known publishing company, recently released two subpar titles: I See Sue... the T. rex, a CD-ROM game that Buckleitner describes as "thrown together," and Daria's Sick, Sad Life Planner, an electronic journal and calendar for teenage girls that is hard to use and sports a clumsy interface.

Know your child. "There's such a wide variety of software out there, parents really can find the one program that best matches their child's learning style." Get recommendations from trusted sources such as friends, teachers and published reviews. Check out for Buckleitner's partial database of reviews.

Stay involved. "Adults need to make sure there's a balance." This means set time limits, and don't let computers become a source of drill-and-practice drudgery for your kids.

No argument there.