Computers and Children

The Alliance for Childhood issued the following statement on September 12, 2000

Computers are reshaping children's lives, at home and at school, in profound and unexpected ways. Common sense suggests that we consider the potential harm, as well as the promised benefits, of this change.

Computers pose serious health hazards to children. The risks include repetitive stress injuries, eyestrain, obesity, social isolation, and, for some, long-term damage to physical, emotional, or intellectual development. Our children, the Surgeon General warns, are the most sedentary generation ever. Will they thrive spending even more time staring at screens?

Children need stronger personal bonds with caring adults. Yet powerful technologies are distracting children and adults from each other.

Children need time for active, physical play; hands-on lessons of all kinds, especially in the arts; and direct experience of the natural world. Research shows these are not frills but are essential for healthy child development. Yet many schools have cut already minimal offerings in these areas to shift time and money to expensive, unproven technology.

The emphasis on technology is distracting us from the urgent social and educational needs of low income children. M.I.T. Professor Sherry Turkle has asked: "Are we using computer technology not because it teaches best but because we have lost the political will to fund education adequately?"

Given the high costs and clear hazards, we call for a moratorium on the further introduction of computers in early childhood and elementary education. We call for families, schools, and communities to refocus on the essentials of a healthy childhood. And we call for a broad public discussion about these critical issues.

Let's examine the claims about computers and children more closely:

Do computers really motivate children to learn faster and better?

Children must start learning on computers as early as possible, we are told, to get a jump-start on success. But 30 years of research on educational technology has produced just one clear link between computers and children's learning. Drill-and-practice programs appear to improve scores modestly--though not as much or as cheaply as one-on-one tutoring--on some standardized tests, in narrow skill areas, notes Larry Cuban of Stanford University. "Other than that," says Cuban, former president of the American Educational Research Association, "there is no clear, commanding body of evidence that students' sustained use of multimedia machines, the Internet, word processing, spreadsheets, and other popular applications has any impact on academic achievement."

The sheer power of information technologies may actually hamper young children's intellectual growth. What is good for adults and older students is often inappropriate for youngsters. Face-to-face conversation with more competent language users, for example, is the one constant factor in studies of how children become expert speakers, readers, and writers. Time for real talk with parents and teachers is critical. Similarly, academic success requires focused attention, listening, and persistence.

The computer -- like the TV -- can be a mesmerizing babysitter. But many children, overwhelmed by the volume of data and flashy special effects of the World Wide Web and much software, have trouble focusing on any one task. And a new study from the American Association of University Women casts doubt on the claim that computers automatically motivate learning. Many girls, it found, are bored by computers. And many boys seem more interested in violent video games than educational software.

Must five-year-olds be trained on computers today to get the high-paying jobs of tomorrow?

For a relatively small number of children with certain disabilities, technology offers benefits. But for the majority, computers pose health hazards and potentially serious developmental problems. Of particular concern is the growing incidence of disabling repetitive stress injuries among college students who began using computers in childhood.

The technology in schools today will be obsolete long before five-year-olds graduate. Creativity and imagination are the prerequisites for innovative thinking, which will never be obsolete. Yet a heavy diet of ready-made computer images and programmed toys appears to stunt imaginative thinking. Teachers report that children in our electronic society are becoming alarmingly deficient in generating their own images and ideas.

Do computers really "connect" children to the world?

Too often, what computers actually connect children to are trivial games, inappropriate adult material, and aggressive advertising. They can also isolate children, emotionally and physically, from direct experience of the natural world. The "distance" education they promote is the opposite of what all children, and especially children at risk, need most -- close relationships with caring adults.

Research shows that strengthening bonds between teachers, students, and families is a powerful remedy for troubled students and struggling schools. Overemphasizing technology can weaken those bonds. The National Science Board reported in 1998 that prolonged exposure to computing environments may create "individuals incapable of dealing with the messiness of reality, the needs of community building, and the demands of personal commitments."

In the early grades, children need live lessons that engage their hands, hearts, bodies, and minds -- not computer simulations. Even in high school, where the benefits of computers are more clear, too few technology classes emphasize the ethics or dangers of online research and communication. Too few help students develop the critical skills to make independent judgments about the potential for the Internet -- or any other technology -- to have negative as well as positive social consequences.

Our Conclusion: Those who place their faith in technology to solve the problems of education should look more deeply into the needs of children. The renewal of education requires personal attention to students from good teachers and active parents, strongly supported by their communities. It requires commitment to developmentally appropriate education and attention to the full range of children's real, low-tech needs -- physical, emotional, and social, as well as cognitive.

Therefore, we call for:

1: A refocusing in education, at home and school, on the essentials of a healthy childhood: strong bonds with caring adults; time for spontaneous, creative play; a curriculum rich in music and the other arts; reading books aloud; storytelling and poetry; rhythm and movement; cooking, building things, and other handcrafts; and gardening and other hands-on experiences of nature and the physical world.

2: A broad public dialogue on how the emphasis on computers affects the real needs of children, especially children in low-income families.

3: A comprehensive report by the U.S. Surgeon General on the full extent of physical, emotional, and other developmental hazards computers pose to children.

4: Full disclosure by information-technology companies about the physical hazards to children of using their products.

5: A halt to the commercial hyping of harmful or useless technology for children.

6: A new emphasis on ethics, responsibility, and critical thinking in teaching older students about the personal and social effects of technology.

7: An immediate moratorium on the further introduction of computers in early childhood and elementary education, except for special cases of students with disabilities. Such a time-out is necessary to create the climate for the above recommendations to take place.

Signed by: Endorsement of theis statement does not indicate membership in the Alliance for Childhood. Organizations included for identification purposes only.)

Samella Abdullah, Ph.D., M.S.W., psychotherapist, educator, and consultant in Tallahassee, FL; and former president, the Association of Black Psychologists

Joan Almon, former kindergarten teacher and U.S. coordinator, Alliance for Childhood

Jeffrey Anshel, O.D., Corporate Vision Consulting, and author, Visual Ergonomics in the Workplace

Alison Armstrong, author, The Child and the Machine: How Computers Put Our Children's Education at Risk

Andy Baumbartner, 1999 National Teacher of the Year, 1998 Milken Educator Award winner, and kindergarten teacher, A. Brian Merry School, Augusta, GA.

Marilyn Benoit, M.D., child and adolescent psychiatrist, Howard University Hospital, and president-elect of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry (Dr. Benoit's signature, as noted above, does not reflect an endorsement of this statement by the Academy.)

Margit L. Bleecker, M.D., Ph.D., neurologist, specialist in repetitive stress injuries, and director, Center for Occupational and Environmental Neurology in Baltimore

Chet Bowers, educator and author, Let Them Eat Data: How Computers Affect Education, Cultural Diversity, and the Prospects of Ecological Sustainability, and The Culture of Denial: Why the Environmental Movement Needs a Strategy for Reforming Universities and Public Schools

Hank Bromley, Ph.D., associate professor of education and director, Center for the Study of Technology in Education, State University of New York at Buffalo; editor, Education/Technology/Power: Education Computing as a Social Practice

Anita Brown, founder and chair, Black Geeks Online, a nonprofit organization for tech-savvy African Americans, Washington, DC

Dion G. Burn, concerned parent in Richmond, VA, and editor, online educational testing and assessment company

Sandra Campbell, researcher on computers in education, and the role of the arts and imagination in positive social learning; and educational consultant, Viva Associates, Toronto, Ontario

Fritjof Capra, Ph.D., physicist and author of The Tao of Physics, and Web of Life

Ian Chunn, program director, Centre for Distance Education, Simon Fraser University

Rhonda Clements, Ed.D., President, The American Association for the Child's Right to Play, Hempsted, NY

Brendan Connell, student, Harvard University (Mr. Connell developed repetitive stress injuries related to computer use while a student at Blair High School in Montgomery County, MD)

Colleen Cordes, writer, co-coordinator of Task Force on Computers in Childhood, Alliance for Childhood

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, professor of psychology and management and director of the Quality of Life Research Center at Claremont Graduate University, and author, Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience

Larry Cuban, Ph.D., professor of education, Stanford University, and former president, the American Educational Research Association

O. Fred Donaldson, Ph.D., play specialist, Moreno Valley Unified School District, Hemet, CA

Hubert L. Dreyfus, professor of philosophy, University of California at Berkeley, and author, On the Internet: Nihilism on Line (in press)

Elliot Eisner, Lee Jacks professor of education and professor of art at Stanford University; former president of the American Educational Research Association, the National Art Education Association, and the International Society for Education Through Art; and author, The Kind of Schools We Need

Oscar H. Gandy, Jr., Ph.D., Herbert I. Schiller professor of communication at the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania

Simson L. Garfinkel, chief technology officer, Sandstorm Enterprises, Inc., and author, Database Nation: The Death of Privacy in the 21st Century

Claire Ryle Garrison, director, Whole Child Initiative, State of the World Forum, San Francisco, CA

John Taylor Gatto, former New York State Teacher of the Year, and author, Dumbing Us Down, and The Underground History of American Education: A School Teacher's Intimate Investigation Into the Problem of Modern Schooling (in press)

Chellis Glendinning, Ph.D., psychologist and author, When Technology Wounds

Jane Goodall, Ph.D., primate researcher and founder, Jane Goodall Institute -- U.K.

Joan Dye Gussow, M.S., Rose Professor Emeritus, Nutrition and Education, Teachers College, Columbia University, and author of Chicken Little, Tomato Sauce, and Agriculture: Who Will Produce Tomorrow's Food?

Jane Healy, Ph. D., educational psychologist; former teracher, administrator, and learning specialist; author of Failure to Connect: How Computers Affect Our Children's Minds - for Better and Worse, Endangered Minds, and Your Child's Growing Mind

Harold Howe II, retired educator, former U.S. Commissioner of Education and vice president of Ford Foundation for Education, Harvard education faculty

Philip Incao, M.D., primary care physician and founder, Colorado Alliance for Childhood

Henry C. Johnson, Jr., Ph.D., professor emeritus in education theory and policy, Pennsylvania State University

Jeffrey Kane, Ph.D., dean, School of Education, C.W. Post Campus, Long Island University, and editor, Education, Information and Transformation: Essays on Learning and Thinking

Christopher Kendall, M.M., director, School of Music, University of Maryland; artistic director and conductor, 20/1 Century Consort, new-music ensemble in residence at the Smithsonian Institution; founder and lutenist, Folger Consort in residence at the Folger Shakespeare Library

John Kendall, music educator, internationally recognized authority on violin pedagogy, introducer of the Suzuki Method from Japan to the United States; and emeritus professor of violin at Southern Illinois University, Edwardsville

Stephen Kline, Ph.D., professor in the School of Communication, Simon Fraser University, and author, Out of the Garden: Toys, TV, and Children's Culture in the Age of Marketing

Edgar Klugman, Ph.D., professor emeritus, Wheelock College, and editor of Play, Policy and Practice.

Robert F. Lathe, Senior Programmer and Information Architecture Specialist, Rapidigm Interactive; formerly, Systems Analyst and Designer, Max Planck Institute for Plasma Research, Munich

Nancy Leveson, Ph.D., director of the Software Engineering Research Lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and also professor in MIT's Aeronautics and Astronautics Department, formerly professor of computer science at MIT and high-school teacher of mathematics

Diane Levin, Ph.D., professor of education, Wheelock College, and author, Remote Control Childhood

Cyril Levitt, Ph.D., professor of sociology, McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario

Susan Linn, Ed.D., associate director, the Media Center at Judge Baker Children's Center, and instructor in psychiatry at Harvard Medical School

Joan S. Lipsitz, Ph.D., education consultant, former director of elementary and secondary education for the Lilly Endowment, Inc., founder and director of the Center for Early Adolescence at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

Jerry Mander, program director, Foundation for Deep Ecology; president, International Forum on Globalization; and author, In the Absence of the Sacred: The Failure of Technology and the Survival of the Indian Nations

Bill McKibben, author of The Age of Missing Information

Deborah W. Meier, principal, Mission Hill School, Boston Public Schools

Edward Miller, Ed.M., educational policy analyst, former editor of the Harvard Education Letter, and co-coordinator, Task Force on Computers in Childhood, Alliance for Childhood

Marita Moll, researcher and analyst of educational-technology policies, and author, Tech High; Globalization and the Future of Canadian Education

Lowell Monke, Ph.D., former award-winning teacher of advanced technology classes in the Des Moines Public Schools and former member of Des Moines' Technology Steering Committee, now assistant professor of education, Wittenberg University; co-author, Breaking Down the Digital Walls: Learning to Teach in a Post-Modem World (in press)

Thomas Moore, former psychotherapist and author, Care of the Soul: A Guide for Cultivating Depth and Sacredness in Everyday Life

David Noble, Ph.D., professor of social science, York University, and author, "Digital Diploma Mills" and The Religion of Technology

Douglas Noble, Ph.D., senior research associate, SUNY-Geneseo, and author, The Classroom Arsenal: Military Research, Information Technology, and Public Education

David Orr, Ph.D., chair, Environmental Studies Program at Oberlin College, and author, Earth in Mind: On Education, Environment and the Human Prospect

Maria Papadakis, Ph.D., director, Institute for the Social Assessment of Information Technology, Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University. (Dr. Papadakis was the author of Chapter Eight: Economic and Social Significance of Information Technologies, for the U.S. National Science Board's official biennial report, Science & Engineering Indicators -- 1998. The chapter summarized the research on the impacts of information technology on K-12 student learning.)

Kim John Payne, researcher and educational consultant for attention-related disorders, and author, The Games Children Play Hadley, MA

Mary Pipher, Ph.D., psychologist and author, Reviving Ophelia: Saving the Selves of Adolescent Girls, and The Shelter of Each Other: Rebuilding Our Families

Neil Postman, Ph.D., chair, Department of Culture and Communications, New York University, and author, Technopoly, The End of Education: Redefining the Value of School, and The Disappearance of Childhood

Alvin F. Poussaint, M.D., director, the Media Center at Judge Baker Children's Center and clinical professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School

Deborah Quilter, RSI prevention consultant and author, The Repetitive Strain Injury Recovery Book

Raffi, singer, founder, the Troubadour Institute

Diane Ravitch, Ph.D., research professor, New York University, and former assistant secretary of education, responsible for the U.S. Office of Educational Research and Improvement

Beth Rosenberg, consumer technology journalist, especially on issues involving young children and CD-ROMs

Theodore Roszak, Ph.D., professor of history, California State University-Hayward, and author of The Cult of Information

Rustum Roy, Ph.D., Evan Pugh professor of the solid state and director of the Science, Technology, and Society programs, Penn State University

Gary Ruskin, M.P.P., director, Commercial Alert, Washington, DC

Dorothy St. Charles, leadership specialist for the Milwaukee Public Schools and former principal

Barry Sanders, Ph.D., professor of English and history of ideas, Pitzer College and author of A is for Ox: The Collapse of Literacy and the Rise of Violence in an Electronic Age

Richard Sclove, Ph.D., M.S., founder, The Loka Institute, and author, Democracy and Technology

David Shenk, author of Data Smog: Surviving the Information Glut; and The End of Patience: Cautionary Notes on the Information Revolution

David Skrbina, M.S., M.S., concerned parent, member of Citizens Technology Advisory Committee for the Northville (MI) schools, and supervisor, Ford Motor Co., advanced technology

Douglas Sloan, Ph.D., professor of history and education, Teachers College, Columbia University and editor of The Computer in Education: A Critical Perspective

Ann Speed, Ph.D., cognitive psychologist, Web-based education and training specialist in Colorado

Clifford Stoll, Ph.D., astronomer and author, High Tech Heretic and The Cuckoo's Egg: Tracking a Spy Through the Maze of Computer Espionage (October, 2000)

Stephen Talbott, former software engineer; senior researcher, The Nature Institute; and editor of NetFuture, an online newsletter on technology and human responsibility, Ghent, NY

Betsy Taylor, executive director, Center for a New American Dream

Joanna Redfield Vaughn, art specialist, Austin Independent School District

Frank Vespe, executive director, TV-Turnoff Network

Bailus Walker, Jr., Ph. D., M.P.H., professor of environmental and occupational medicine, Howard University College of Medicine; chairman, Alliance to End Childhood Lead Poisoning; former commissioner of public health for Massachusetts; former director of the Occupational Health Standards Division, U.S. Department of Labor; former president of the American Public Health Association

Joseph Weizenbaum, Ph.D., professor emeritus of computer science, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and author, Computer Power and Human Reason: From Judgment to Calculation

Robert Welker, Ph.D., professor and chair of education, Wittenberg University

Daphne White, founder and director, The Lion and Lamb Project, Tachoma Park, MD

Frank R. Wilson, M..D., medical director, Health Program for Performing Artists, University of California at San Francisco, and author, The Hand: How It's Use Shapes the Brain, Language, and Human Culture

Carl Wingo, library consultant for technology and bibliographic services, Missouri State Library

Langdon Winner, Ph.D., professor of political science at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and author, The Whale and the Reactor: A Search for Limits in an Age of High Technology, and Autonomous Technology

Pei-hsuan Wu, lab manager and technology assistant, Saint Mark's School

Arthur Zajonc, Ph.D., professor of physics, Amherst College, and author, Catching the Light: The Entwined History of Light and Mind, and co-author, The Quantum Challenge: Modern Research on the Foundations of Quantum Mechanics