The 'Meme' That Ate Childhood

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In his book Thought Contagion, Aaron Lynch describes a "meme" as a set of ideas or belief systems that attain a life of their own, grow, and reproduce themselves as they gain power in the public consciousness. It's not a question of how people acquire ideas but rather "how ideas acquire people." But simply because a notion has seized the public consciousness does not guarantee that it is either rational or beneficial.

As a longtime advocate of the educational potential of digital technologies, I have just spent over two years visiting classrooms and homes to observe the ramifications of a powerful new meme gripping the American psyche: Get these kids on computers--and the earlier the better! Not only will machines automatically improve education, but--even more important--they will prepare youngsters for the future.

I am sorry to report that I was both discouraged and dismayed by what I saw--too many ill-informed software choices; inadequate teacher preparation; children engaging in idle clicking, game-playing, and silly surfing; lack of relevance to curriculum; expensive equipment obsolete or ill-used--to name just a few. But I was most troubled to discover that developmental issues have been virtually ignored. In every other sphere of education, we recognize that what is right for a 15-year-old is not necessarily right--and may be outright damaging--to a 5-year-old. I now believe that some ages are far more appropriate than others for the introduction of computers, and that most normally developing young children (which I define as roughly under age 7) are better off without today's electronic companions.

Where did we get this preposterous notion that young children need computers lest they somehow fall behind? Clearly, marketers have sold this idea as, with unconscious irony, they target tots as the latest "growth industry." This, of course, is their right, and parents, wanting the best for their children, are easily convinced. Shouldn't educators, however, be more critical consumers? Don't we yet know enough to question the hype about a pedagogical "quick fix"--especially when planning for our youngest minds?

In the adult workplace, mandatory controls are enforced for the well-documented physical hazards of computer use. These include visual and postural problems (for example, carpal tunnel syndrome, which is now affecting increasing numbers of schoolchildren), as well as potential dangers of emissions from the backs or sides of older machines. Yet in schoolrooms, I found an appalling disregard of basic safety guidelines and little awareness of the importance of this issue. At the very least, educators should heed existing guidelines and demand better research on computers' effects on growing bodies.

Likewise, little is known about cognitive, emotional, and social consequences of early computer use. Most available research has been commissioned by industry interests, and the sparse objective evidence indicates that computers have thus far contributed nothing of note to the learning process--often less, in fact, than what is accomplished by a good teacher with a reasonable class size and adequate traditional materials. Moreover, growing awareness of brain development emphasizes the importance of a physically active, linguistically rich, creative, and three-dimensional learning environment. Take note: Several responsible educators I interviewed deem up to 85 percent of current software not only "worthless" but possibly damaging. For example, one study of children using a popular reading-readiness program showed a 50 percent drop in their creativity scores.

Several important aspects of preschool and primary learning may be distorted by too much electronic stimulation:

  • Learning in a social context. Young children may be profoundly affected by relationships they develop with their machines; even elementary-age children still have trouble categorizing computers into "alive" or "not alive" and tend to place too much trust in them. Computers must never supplant supportive human environments; too much computer use in early years is now suspected of exacerbating both social and emotional difficulties in many children.
  • Learning to use all the senses. Computers tend to narrow and decontextualize sensory experience during a time when children should be practicing intersensory integration--a critical foundation for academic skills. Open-ended computer use--such as a drawing program--offers some combining of sensory abilities but differs qualitatively from nature's programming of whole-body, three-dimensional experience. A time may come when specially designed software can "teach" intersensory integration, but I haven't seen any yet that I would trust to do the job.
  • Learning to be a powerful learner. Too much time with electronic teachers and "edutainment" software risks passive learning. Early years are a time for learning one's "stance" toward the world: (1) Should I trust or mistrust others--or myself? (2) How does the world really work? and (3) How powerful am I as an independent learner?
Where did we get this preposterous notion that young children need computers lest they somehow fall behind?

Autonomous control of play materials by the child (as with nonelectronic toys, or found materials) is very important in this process. Young children naturally tend to disbelieve their own power as compared with a computer, which is "opaque"--that is, one can't really understand or see what makes it work or ultimately control its behavior (with the possible exception of LOGO programming). Cause and effect--as well as self-control and efficacy--are easy to learn when you're trying to hammer a nail into a board (if I miss, then I might hurt my finger), but hard to learn when a system crashes for no apparent reason or things jump around the screen without a visible source of propulsion.

  • Learning to pay attention. One of the most important learning skills threatened by electronic stimulation is selective attention: the ability to direct one's own attention and focus clearly on what is to be learned without succumbing to distraction. Children who can't resist touching anything that comes into sight or whose mental focus shifts every time something happens are said to be "stimulus bound." Distracting graphics and special effects, coupled with the temptation to click impulsively, encourage stimulus-bound behavior which, in turn, contributes to attention problems.
  • Learning visual imagery and memory. Research suggests that too often computers do too much of the remembering and make the pictures without any mental effort from the student. "Working memory," the ability to juggle a number of ideas or thoughts at one time, develops through maturation and practice as does the ability to visualize (hold a mental picture of what you're reading, "see" the relationships of numbers in a math problem). Many learning problems result from deficits in these areas.
  • Learning to think logically. Several aspects of logical/causal reasoning may be shortchanged by the wrong kind of computer use. Research has shown that children learn to reason about abstract relationships from physical experience of action sequences that they themselves control (for example, first I do x, then as a result y happens--and I can change that if I do x differently). Even some of the "best" educational software ends up with the child pushing buttons mainly to select and watch, as opposed to formulating a plan and testing the consequences. Social causal reasoning--the ability to infer how someone else might be feeling--is also built from real-life physical and social experiences: joint activities, language, and shared feelings with other human beings.
  • Learning new symbol systems. Between ages 4 and 7, children begin mastering formal symbols of adult reasoning (written words, numerals), and it's a tempting time to introduce software for phonics or early math skills. Yet an adult must be nearby to make sure what the child is learning, for a symbol is not really useful until it has been understood and internalized: A young child may be able to count to 10 or recognize numerals, but until he really understands what "3" represents in the real world (three blocks, for example), he has not connected the real number concept to the symbol. In the same way, reading comprehension is built on language understanding gained from contextual experiences with meaningful talk--too often in short supply in an electronic classroom.

One experiment cited by psychologist Robbie Case compared young children's math learning from board games played on computers with the same games played by a child with an adult. Although the researchers thought they had developed a software package to duplicate the benefits of real-life experience, the one-on-one contact with an adult still produced far greater gains as a function of the spontaneous language interaction when the adult played with the child. Older children, ages 10 and 11, on the other hand, learned some difficult concepts (for example, inventing a function) more readily from carefully designed math software than from classroom experiences.

  • Learning to be a motivated learner. Educators should be wary of software that dispenses rewards for academic effort (do some math problems and then get a "reward screen") instead of encouraging the child to pursue harder problems for the pleasure of the challenge. Yet in my visits I saw a distressing number of children whose motivational systems were becoming programmed to respond to external rather than internal forces. There is no question that computers are "motivating" to children--but are they motivated to learn, or just to play with the computer? And who's in charge of that motivation--the child or the programmer?

While there are indeed some promising developments on the horizon (for example, early-literacy and bilingual programs and computerized training for young children with specific developmental needs), we must consider fiscal alternatives. We can wire every classroom to the Internet or provide every child with a decent preschool program. We can give primary teachers a bunch of vacuous games and soon-to-be-obsolete equipment, or we can provide the one-on-one remedial help that will give all children a crack at the gold ring of literacy.

I would propose that we delay our technological assault on the very young and direct the computers, software, and Internet access to support a well-articulated curriculum in later grades. Older students can better use these machines as "ramps to the abstract," in David Perkins' words, at a time when they are more developmentally appropriate.

But won't the little ones fall behind? Nonsense! Not only will the technology be constantly changing, but it has been repeatedly shown that 10-year-olds--or even adults--can master complex computer skills even without previous experience. It is far more important that we spend these valuable years preparing young children for a future in which they will be masters, rather than servants, of their machines because they have developed the powerful habits of intellect, reflection, creativity, interpersonal skills, and internal motivation that so far come only from real-world experiences and good (human) teaching in a meaningful social context.

Educators have never before been wooed by such a concerted commercial effort to insert costly products into the classroom. Our responsibility is not only to critically evaluate these blandishments but also to interpret the real needs of children to their parents, many of whom do not realize that a youngster building an innovative block tower or staring thoughtfully at a bird's nest is demonstrating far more potential for the future than one clicking buttons on a screen. If we really want to "prepare them for the future," we will defy the meme and give our children what they really need rather than a shallow electronic substitute.

Jane M. Healy is an educational psychologist and longtime teacher, administrator, lecturer, and consultant. She is the author of Failure To Connect: How Computers Affect Our Children's Minds--For Better and Worse, published by Simon & Schuster in September.

Vol. 18, Issue 6, Pages 37, 56

Published in Print: October 7, 1998, as The 'Meme' That Ate Childhood
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