The Teacher's Story

AT FIRST I was pleased to hear from her folks that four-year-old Emma has been learning to use the family computer. And it seemed fine that "doing the computer," as Emma puts it, had become the high point of her school day. I really expected the novelty to wear off, but that didn't happen. If anything, Emma's involvement has grown, while her other interests have narrowed. And now I am concerned.

Lately she seems at a loss when we do art projects, and she is less socially involved and eager to explore, even during the nature walks she once adored. She has endless patience with the computer mouse, but less and less with other children. Emma is so intent on whatever her software challenge of the moment may be that she tries to negotiate for more time at the monitor. While most of our children engage in fairly complex dramas during free play, Emma seems distracted. Her gross-motor skills may be lagging, too, because outdoor activity has taken a backseat to her favorite indoor pastime.

In short, I am concerned about Emma's restlessness when she is away from the screen and her shortened attention span for everything else. We hear so much about the importance of giving kids a head start with technology that I don't know whether to trust my hunch that Emma is overdoing it.

The Parent's Story

MAYBE IT WAS all the electronic noise-the ping, bong, of video games and the blaring of CDs from her older siblings' rooms-that inspired Emma to ask if she could try "doing the computer." We gladly taught her how to turn it on and off and to use the mouse. In the days and weeks ahead, she took to computing with greater and greater excitement and skill. We began to buy "educational" software, thinking it would give her an interesting challenge. At first her preschool didn't have a computer, so as soon as she got home, Emma would rush upstairs to ours. And we were excited about her eagerness to learn.

Now, even though Emma has access to a computer daily at school, she still rushes to ours every afternoon and lines up with our two older children for weekend turns. We are beginning to be concerned about the amount of time she's spending on it, especially since she's showing less and less interest in playing with friends. After her many rejections, most of them have stopped inviting her for playdates. She's even lost interest in her toys. My husband and I are confused. We're proud of her accomplishment but worried that she may be losing out on some other important things in life. We don't know what to do.

Dr. Brodkin's Assessment How much is too much or just the right amount of time for young children to spend with a computer? The question remains controversial. But experts in early cognitive development warn about the same sort of things that concern Emma's parents and teacher.

What can the teacher do?

At this point, the first step is to confer with Emma's parents. Together, devise a plan for gradually reducing the amount of time she spends computing. I suggest limiting Emma to one turn a day. At the same time, observe her at play and listen to whatever she has to say. By getting to know her interests better, you're more likely to think of group activities that may entice her when she misses the computer.

What can the parents do?

It won't be easy, but the goal for Emma's parents should be to shorten the time she spends on the computer and to help her renew interest in other things. They can gradually spend more time together doing hands-on activities: games, trips, storytelling, cooking, reading, and imaginative play. Whenever possible, include friends. Emma may be willing to try some physical activities that are new to her, such as gymnastics and family hiking.

My advice is to work toward limiting computer time to no more than half an hour per day and, eventually, to no more than an hour in front of any screen - computer monitor and TV combined. However, if the adults in Emma's life have made sure that she has opportunities to express herself and explore in all sorts of ways and that this is still the focus of her interest, trust the child. She will find her own way whether she maintains this interest as a dominant focus in her life, gets bored and moves on, or finds a balance with other activities.