Computers and kids: the good news; children are learning valuable lessons from machines they can’t intimidate or dominate

Gilbert Levin

Computers and Kids: The Good News

In January 1982, Arnold Kaye chained himself to the Town Hall in Westport, Connecticut, after the application to expand his video arcade was rejected by town authorities. Arnie’s Place did expand after extensive court proceedings, but not before the arcade had become the focal point of a heated debate among residents, teachers, government officials and Kaye.

The public debate centered around zoning, traffic and parking issues. Privately, though, many worried about the effect such an establishment and its video games might have on the children of Westport.

Parents, teachers and other adults across the country have expressed alarm about several aspects of the interaction between computers and children. Many are concerned about the violent content of some computer games, especially those seen in video arcades. Others fear that computing may become a compulsive or addictive activity. Still others wonder whether too much computer use encourages withdrawal and social isolation or fosters passive rather than active involvement in life.

It is becoming increasingly clear that these fears were exaggerated. In fact, there is much to say that is reassuring and encouraging about our children’s ongoing love affair with the computer.

The content of several of the early computer games was terrifying. In the game “Space Invaders,’ for example, aliens march inexorably toward a planet, aiming to destroy it. The point of the game is to annihilate the invading hordes and delay as long as possible, but never prevent, the inevitable destruction of your defensive shields. Many violent games, however, are being replaced by games that express more constructive values and themes.

Similarly, the fear that kids may become addicted to computer games seems to be unfounded. The results of one small-scale study are particularly reassuring. Edna Mitchell, a professor of education, studied computer-games playing among 20 families in the San Francisco area beginning in the 1981 Christmas season. After an initial period of heavy use by some families, the average family used its game set only about 40 minutes each day. And her results indicate that the games had neutral and even beneficial effects. Children and parents alike reported that the games brought family members together in active and cooperative play.

There is an equally reassuring study on whether computers cause children to become withdrawn or isolated. Psychologist B. David Brooks interviewed more than 1,000 youngsters in video-game parlors and found that they tend to be average or better-than-average students, nontruants and regular participants in extracurricular activities. Brooks reports that most arcade habitues are not compulsive players. Rather, they actively interact with other youngsters during their visits to the arcade. Brooks sees today’s video arcade as a hangout for adolescents that is similar to the ice cream parlor of yesterday. On balance, he argues, the video arcade is a deterrent to delinquent behavior. Brooks also reports cases of enhanced self-esteem and social acceptance in youngsters (otherwise socially isolated) who were able to achieve competence at the games.

I don’t deny that youngsters spend many hours working at the computer. However, when they are using their home computers, most of the time is spent doing things that teachers and parents typically endorse and encourage. Writing a program or mastering a new computer game or other software package has much in common with solving a math problem, writing a story, reading a book or drawing a picture. Such activities often take longer than we plan and absorb our total attention, but they are nevertheless widely and wisely valued.

The fear that computers foster passivity in youngsters seems to me altogether groundless. This fear derives from confusing computers with television, their ancestor. Television, a major source of the visual and auditory stimulation for today’s children, places them in the role of passive observers. Participation is only possible in a vicarious sense. During the hours that children watch television, they are held captive by its flow of images and sounds.

The way that children relate to computers is very different. They are given the capacity to intervene in the flow of information, to modify, augment, delete or transform it. The viewer becomes a doer in a new medium that I think of as “interventionist video.’ In fact, if there is a danger at all, it is that children will learn to intervene in their environment too actively. Such was the case with some members of the “414’s’ of Milwaukee, who used their personal computers to enter the computers of several large institutions illegally.

It is difficult to deny that children are not only very comfortable with computers, they are also unnervingly good at them. One reason is the hours they log in front of the television set. Despite the danger of passivity mentioned earlier, there is cause to believe that intense and early exposure to television fosters the development of certain perceptual and cognitive skills that are undeveloped in those of us who grew up listening to the radio and reading books, which are serial media. Video, in contrast, is a simultaneous medium that requires that attention be paid to several concurrently occurring dynamic processes. Those who grow up with this experience develop expertise that those of us who were socialized in the older media can acquire only with effort.

Whatever the reason, children bring a special aptitude to computers. Their mastery of the machines and the processes of computing seems certain to enhance their self-esteem and foster their motivation to learn.

It seems to me that there are some additional and very desirable lessons that children are learning from their experiences with computers. The first derives from the fact that computers are never wrong. Occasional hardware bugs and software glitches aside, when the results of working with a computer are not what a user expects, the reason can always be found in the behavior of the user. This applies as much to a child practicing multiplication tables as it does to an advanced programmer writing code. Computers do precisely what they are instructed to do, and they provide totally reliable feedback about the consequences of their users’ behavior. Using computers for a period of time is valuable training in personal responsibility for anyone.

Our social learning and much learning of other sorts occur as a result of interactions with people. Good parents and effective teachers bring special virtues to this teaching process, not the least of which is empathy–the ability to look at the situation from the other person’s point of view. The computer lacks this special human quality, but, curiously, that seems to be a virtue rather than a deficiency.

Like an earthquake, a storm or the force of gravity, the computer simply keeps doing its thing, oblivious to people’s needs, wishes and sensitivities. It cannot be manipulated, dominated or intimidated. It cannot be seduced and it cannot be blamed. After some initial testing of the limits, people come to value the machines for their honesty. A beeping sound that signals an error is a punishing sound to the beginner. But that same beep is, to the experienced user, a precious warning that a correction is required in order for the computer to be able to reach the desired destination.

The computer also teaches humility. Anyone who has mastered even one moderately complex piece of software has had a glimpse of the unlimited complexity and depth of the device. No matter how much one knows about computing, there is always far more to learn. Even the most skilled programmer is often forced to admit ignorance and go through the painful process of learning much that is new.

Most adults who have watched groups of children interact with computers report that the level of cooperation among the children is surprisingly high compared to the behavior of the same children when they are engaged in other activities. It may well be that the children are learning about personal responsibility and humility. It may not be too much to hope that some of this valuable learning is transferable to the broader context of interpersonal relations in the world at large.

The power available to children at this early stage in the development of computers is impressive; it will enhance their lives and soon it will be sufficient to change the world.

COPYRIGHT 1985 Sussex Publishers, Inc.

COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group

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