Technology Testimony

Testimony from the Alliance for Childhood on the Question of Web-Based Education

The following testimony is submitted on behalf of the Alliance for Childhood. The alliance is a partnership of individuals and organizations committed to fostering and respecting each child's inherent right to a healthy and developmentally appropriate childhood.

First, thank you for issuing such an open invitation for comments on the commission's efforts to investigate the potential of Web-based education for students of all ages and to recommend related public policies.

We very much appreciate this chance to express our deep concern about the developmental hazards of emphasizing the Internet, distance learning, and other uses of computers in early childhood and elementary education. From the online record of the commission's work to date, it does not appear that this critical issue has received the attention it requires. Such an omission threatens to compromise the entire process. The developmental and educational needs of a child in kindergarten, after all, are vastly different from the needs of a high-school senior or college undergraduate.

In that regard, we note with regret that no current early childhood or elementary educators were named to the commission, nor any members whose chief expertise is in the realm of child development. We also note that strong proponents of Web-based education are represented on the panel. That is certainly appropriate. However, a growing number of thoughtful critics now challenge the assumption that young children will necessarily benefit from a highly-computerized educational experience. The absence of any representation of that point of view on the panel is also regrettable.

Given these missing voices on the commission itself, we ask the commission to immediately initiate a special effort to incorporate such thoughtful critiques and developmental concerns in its deliberations.

To assist the commission towards that end, we are attaching to this electronic submission of testimony a paper on "Dot.com Kids," written by Marilyn Benoit, M.D., who is a founding partner of the Alliance for Childhood and an associate clinical professor of psychiatry at Howard and Georgetown universities. Dr. Benoit is also the president-elect of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, although she is not representing that organization in the document that we have attached.

As part of our testimony, we are also snail-mailing to the commission copies of two recent books that thoroughly document a wide range of potential developmental hazards associated with emphasizing computers and the Internet in the lives of young children. They are: Failure to Connect: How Computers Affect Our Children's Minds--for Better and Worse, by the educational psychologist Jane Healy; and The Child and the Machine: How Computers Put Our Children's Education at Risk, by Alison Armstrong and Charles Casement. We also refer you to our own Web site, at http://www.allianceforchildhood.org for more information on this important issue. (A complete list of our partners and other information about the Alliance is also posted there.)

Powerful economic and political forces are now aligned behind the idea that the Internet and distance-learning opportunities can significantly improve the education of students of all ages. Some proponents even seem intent upon including preschoolers in such claims. The Alliance for Childhood, however, is deeply concerned that this assumption ignores years of research findings, from several scientific disciplines, on healthy child development.

Young children in our society need, more than anything else, stronger personal bonds with caring adults. They also need more time for creative, active play; hands-on lessons of all kinds, especially lessons that incorporate the arts; and direct experiences of the natural world. Research shows that these are not frills but educational essentials. Emphasizing computers in childhood can easily mean depriving children of these essentials, in pursuit of benefits that are almost entirely unproved.

A 1999 study by the Kaiser Family Foundation concluded that children ages 2 to 18 spend, on average, about 4 hours and 45 minutes a day outside of school plugged into electronic media of all kinds. Many child development experts, such as Stanley I. Greenspan, M.D., the former director of the Clinical Infant Development Program at the National Institute of Mental Health, are concerned that increased exposure to electronic media comes at the expense of children's already limited time for personal nurturing from adults. "So-called interactive, computer-based instruction that does not provide true interaction but merely a mechanistic response to the student's efforts," Greenspan has noted, is one more sign of "the increasingly impersonal quality that suffuses the experience of more and more American children." (See Greenspan, The Growth of the Mind and the Endangered Origins of Intelligence, Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley, 1997, p. 174.)

Emphasizing the Internet in early childhood and elementary education is especially problematic. Too often, what the Internet actually connects children to are trivial games, inappropriate adult material, and aggressive advertising.

The Surgeon General has warned that children today are already the most sedentary generation in U.S. history. Any proposal that envisions them spending even more time sitting in front of screens hardly seems likely to be healthy. We note with alarm that no federal health or educational agency appears to have investigated the physical hazards of children spending long hours at computer screens. The likely risks include repetitive stress injuries, eyestrain, obesity, and all the serious complications of a sedentary lifestyle.

There are also risks to children's social, psychological, and moral development in emphasizing computers and the Internet in education. We refer the commission to Chapter 8 in Science and Engineering Indicators, 1998, published by the National Science Board, especially the article titled, "Children, Computers, and Cyberspace," pages 8-23. We quote from that document: "Computing and cyberspace may blur children's ability to separate the living from the inanimate, contribute to escapism and emotional detachment, stunt the development of a sense of personal security, and create a hyper-fluid sense of identity." See also Dr. Benoit's excellent article, attached, on related issues.

We further note the intellectual hazards that a high-tech education poses to young children. The prediction is often made that Web-based education will empower children intellectually, helping them to develop new capacities at rates unparalleled in previous generations. Many adults now have a financial interest in hoping this claim is true. But they have little evidence to offer to support it. Instead, research shows that children's intellectual development requires physically and emotionally engaging experiences. From this perspective, children's interactions with computers are strikingly impoverished compared to face-to-face conversations with parents, teachers, and other adult mentors or hands-on experiences in nature and in the real, physical world.

Finally, we note the high costs of Web-based education and the lack of research evidence, despite 30 years of studies, that computers necessarily boost children's academic achievement. We urge the commission to examine whether Web-based education at the elementary level may not prove instead an expensive diversion, in terms of both time and money, from children's real needs. Too many schools, for example, are reducing their already minimal offerings in the arts, book purchases for school libraries, hands-on science lessons, and even recess, to find the time and the financial resources for computerizing classes.

We also urge the commission to make use of its historic opportunity to do what no previous national panel has ever attempted before: To probe the potential for harm as well as the potential for gain when computers are emphasized in the lives of young children. We realize how politically difficult it is, given our nation's current economic emphasis on advanced technologies, to openly address these issues. But the welfare of our children is too important to neglect them any longer.

Again, we thank you for issuing so open an invitation for public comments. We also invite you to contact us if you have any questions about our testimony or would like the names and contact information for child-development experts and others who can contribute the kind of thoughtful critiques of Web-based education for young children that we are suggesting is essential to the commission's deliberations. The Alliance for Childhood will be issuing its own report on the issue of computers in the lives of children in September, along with recommendations, which we will forward to the commission.

Submitted by:

Joan Almon, U.S. Coordinator, the Alliance for Childhood
Colleen Cordes and Edward Miller, Coordinators, the Task Force on Computers in Childhood for the Alliance for
Childhood