Infants warned off computers

18th June 1999 at 01:00
American psychologist says introducing technology in the early years wastes money and is damaging. Chris Johnston reports

SMALL children should be warned off computers and encouraged to play traditional games that help language skills, says a controversial book on child development to be published next week.

Jane Healy, an American educational psychologist and former teacher, says time spent with computers in the early years is a distraction from important developmental tasks. It may also reinforce bad learning habits and lead to poor motivation and even symptoms of learning disability.

"Computers, at least as they are currently being used, are not necessary or desirable in the lives of most children under age seven," she writes in Failure to Connect: How Computers Affect Our Children's Minds - for Better and Worse. The book, out on Monday, is based on years of research into learning and hundreds of hours of interviews and observations with teachers, parents and students.

Dr Healy says that for under-sevens there are few tasks which a computer would enable them to do better.

"Because age six to seven represents such an important developmental milestone for the human brain, I believe it is a realistic stepping-stone into constructive computer use," she comments.

Above age seven, combining computer and manipulative activities may result in better learning, she says, but for younger pupils, money would be better spent on improving early education programmes.

"It is ridiculous to be giving computers to young kids when teenagers, who can profit both practically and intellectually from their use, lack these resources."

Dr Healy says the push to sell software for pre-schoolers and even toddlers is little more than a cynical marketing exercise: "The immature human brain neither needs nor profits from attempts to 'jump start' it. The fact that this phrase is being successfully used to sell technology for toddlers illustrates our ignorance of early childhood development."

Professor Stephen Heppell, director of Ultralab at Anglia Polytechnic University and creator of the Tesco SchoolNet 2000 initiative, disagrees.

"To say no kids under seven should use the tools that will be a part of their civic, creative and economic lives seems to me to be robbing a generation," he says. Even four-year-olds use computers in "astonishing" ways in his lab.

Owen Lynch, the chief executive of the British Educational Communications and Technology Agency, said in January that without more proof of the educational benefits of computers, continuing government funding for initiatives such as the National Grid for Learning may not be assured.

Failure to Connect, by Jane M Healy, pound;16.99, Simon and Schuster.

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