Another Danger for 21st-Century Children?

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Education and political leaders regularly call for all schools to be "connected." For most, what constitutes "connected" probably is best expressed in President Clinton's goal of every 12-year-old being able to log on to the Internet. In 1994, 35 percent of schools and 3 percent of classrooms had Internet access; by 1997, the proportions were 78 percent and 27 percent, respectively. To make universal connections happen, there is a growing confidence that a mix of professional service providers and volunteers can pull enough wire and donate enough equipment to augment the acknowledged insufficient funding from tax dollars. While there have been some highly publicized events such as "Netdays" in 1996, it is unclear if this mix of purchased and volunteer resources will produce good connections with reliable equipment for even a majority of today's rapidly growing K-12 student body.

Nonetheless, there is unquestioned confidence in the value of Internet technology, if not universal conviction we can afford it. Until recently, almost no one has asked if connecting our classrooms would produce genuine benefits, let alone what the cost would be once installed. That our 12-year-olds will be advantaged by getting on the Internet is rarely debated, and equally rarely does anyone enumerate the ways Internet access will improve their development over other information-access strategies.

This fascination and blind faith mirrors exactly our experience with other technologies. Both radio and television were hailed as technologies to revolutionize learning. Schools and homes were wired and equipped. But the promise of miraculously easy and accessible learning has not been realized. We have learned that sound and video technologies can be valuable instructional tools for teachers. But, like other instructional tools, radio and television must be used carefully and appropriately. It may be that the most important lesson learned from radio and television is how easily technologies can generate harmful outcomes.

Certainly the legacy of television is its impressive influence but questionable efficacy. There is, for example, convincing evidence that watching television has a negative impact on children's literacy skills and that the pace of television programming may contribute to reduced attention spans in children. In addition, there is no longer any credible doubt that heavy television viewing generates higher rates of violent behavior and that the beliefs of the general public are distorted by high rates of sensational reporting. Finally, we know that the powerful marketing capacity of television has been particularly devastating for children. Television has taught generations of children to smoke, to drink alcoholic beverages in excess, and to pursue goods and services they could not afford. In what can only be considered an obscene reversal of educational promise, students in thousands of schools are now forced to watch programs specifically designed to sell--largely junk food and entertainment products.

These "developments" have been sufficiently harmful to cause many to ask if the benefits of the technologies of radio and television have been worth the price. That question may be debatable, but it is clear that every technology that brings benefits also carries a monetary and social price. It is unfortunate that we have yet to examine seriously the price associated with Internet access.

The Internet is a medium with the potential to be more powerful and influential than any to precede it; the great promise to educate may be matched by possible negative consequences. There are both practical and social reasons to be cautious about how we expose children to the Internet. Children clearly should be protected from offensive material that can be accessed easily. But there are more fundamental reasons to be concerned about Internet access for children that are intrinsic to the technology itself rather than the content delivered over it. It may well be that the Internet is a developmentally inappropriate experience for young children and perhaps for adolescents, as well.

Nearly everyone recognizes that children change in important ways as they grow. These changes are not limited to physical characteristics; children's intellectual, social, and emotional changes are just as dramatic. While growth due to the passage of time is a key element in promoting these changes, factors that interact with genetics appear quite important also. Experience is one element of child development that is ordinarily tuned to the age and abilities of children. In other words, we do not demand that children do tasks for which they clearly lack the capabilities. We would not expect a 3-year-old to lift 100 pounds or a 5-year-old to solve complex calculus problems.

This raises a question: To what extent is the Internet consistent with the intellectual capabilities of young children? A brief review of the features that characterize interactive, virtual communication may raise additional questions about the extent to which the Internet qualifies as developmentally appropriate for young children. The following is an analysis of four features that characterize the Internet as a medium and define its promise as a communication technology.

First, the Internet provides virtual rather than actual experience. Access to otherwise unavailable experiences is one of the chief attributes of multimedia electronic communication. Yet, the Internet is significantly different from all other types of experience and may be at odds with the developmental needs of children. Generally, early-childhood development emphasizes physical manipulation coordinated with observation and social interaction about the effects of manipulations. These "hands on" experiences are critical to developing concepts such as conservation and cause-and-effect relations. It is unclear if virtual manipulation will generate the same intellectual skills and sense of personal agency that come from physical manipulation. Not only is the character of this interaction important, but also the form in which it is represented may be influential as well. Variables such as color, detail, and perspective have been shown to affect mediated communication. Thus, what children see and do may be as important as how they see it. We have much to learn about the importance of these factors on young children using the World Wide Web.

Second, the Web provides quick and easy access to an enormous amount of information. However, it has long been the practice in early-childhood development to limit children's access to information by simplifying messages and sequencing content. In this way, young children are not overwhelmed with information that is inconsistent with their past experience and their emerging information-processing abilities. In contrast, the explosive wealth of information on the Web has generated an adult techno-age psychological disorder that British psychologist David Lewis, calls "information fatigue syndrome." Symptoms include both psychological (analytic paralysis) and physical (indigestion, hypertension) reactions. Given the reported negative impact of information overload on some adults, it is likely this volume of information could be quite confusing to children with immature cognitive structures.

Third, the information on the Web is essentially anarchic. Anyone can post literally anything. But young children depend very heavily on adults to verify what they see, hear, and feel. With the Web there is uncontrolled information access with no way to check its reliability and, further, often no practical way to ensure referability. The disorientation adults experience wondering how they navigated to a particular site may be magnified in young children such that information-seeking takes on the magical qualities of fantasy. The consequence may be that children are less able to discriminate between what is and is not real, with no means to reality-test any concepts in the virtual world.

Finally, it is well known that multimedia presentations can be powerful ways to communicate and that children are especially susceptible to these influences. Children on the Web may be more vulnerable both to overt messages and to subtle or thematic innuendoes. Exposure, particularly without careful and informed supervision, may result in distorted interpretations of the complete range of human emotions and broad misunderstanding of nature. While the consequences of Web experiences are unknown, we do know that developing children need special care in all domains--physical, social, emotional, and intellectual. In addition, much of Web experience can be solitary; eliminating the social component of childhood experiences may further distort the way children interpret their interactions. Such a potent influence as the Web should be introduced cautiously, with at least some evidence of its effects.

Parents and teachers should be careful how children are exposed to the Web. Currently very little is known about the impact of the Web on children. A recent review of frequently accessed Web sites that were supposedly designed for children turned up none that was fully consistent with the commonly accepted principles of developmentally appropriate practice by which the soundness of early-childhood-education programs are usually judged. These sites may appeal to adults and to the advertisers who pay for them, but it is more than questionable if they are beneficial or even harmless for the children who access them.

At this point, it appears that there may be some risk to the intellectual and emotional development of young children if they spend considerable time surfing the Web. At a minimum, it will be wise to study the impact of the Web much more carefully before we completely immerse our children in this pervasive medium.

Thomas M. Sherman is a professor in the college of human resources and education at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University in Blacksburg, Va.

Vol. 17, Issue 38, Pages 30, 32

Published in Print: June 3, 1998, as Another Danger for 21st-Century Children?
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