EARLY CHILDHOOD TODAY: Technology is obviously a fact of life. What part should it play in the lives of young children?
BRUCE PERRY: Modern technologies are very powerful because they rely on one of the most powerful genetic biases we have - the preference for visually presented information. The human brain has a tremendous bias for visually presented information. Television, movies, videos, and most computer programs are very visually oriented and therefore attract and maintain the attention of young children. The problem with this is that many modern technologies are very passive. Because of this, they do not provide children with the quality and quantity of crucial emotional, social, cognitive, or physical experiences they require when they are young. The developing child requires the right combination of these experiences at the right times in order to develop optimally. This cannot happen if the child is sitting for hours passively watching television. Sitting a young child in front of a television for hours also prevents that child from having hours of other developmental experiences. Children need real-time social interactions; technology such as television can prevent that from happening.
On the other hand, there are many positive qualities in modern technologies. The technologies that benefit young children the greatest are those that are interactive and allow children to develop their curiosity and problem-solving and independent-thinking skills.
ECT: Could you talk a little more about the differences between computer use and television use among young children?
PERRY: As I said before, I think the difference between computers and television is that television tends to be quite passive. You sit and you are watching and things are happening in front of you, but you don't do anything. Children are natural "manipulators" of the world - they learn through controlling the movement of and interactions between objects in their world: dolls, blocks, toy cars, their own bodies. With television, they watch and do not control anything. Computers allow interaction. Children can control the pace and activity and make things happen on computers. They can also repeat an activity again and again if they choose.
ECT: Do you think three-, four-, and five-year-old children have the capability of understanding and constructively using tools such as cameras, tape recorders, and video cameras?
PERRY: That's a really good question. In a very real sense, children think differently than adults because their brains have not yet completely developed. So, to tape a conversation and replay it for an adult means something entirely different than when a three-year-old hears her voice on a tape. These experiences can be very positive and mind-expanding for a child - as long as they are done at the right time.
Children need real-life experiences with real people to truly benefit from available technologies. Technologies should be used to enhance curriculum and experiences. Children have to have an integrated and well-balanced set of experiences to help them grow into capable adults who can handle social-emotional interactions as well as develop their intellectual abilities.
I think that balance and timing are the keys to healthy development. Provide the right kinds of experiences at the right time and ensure a balanced mixture of emotional, physical, social, and cognitive experiences.
ECT: What potential pitfalls do you see in using technology with young children?
PERRY: One of the obvious issues that all parents and even the people who develop multimedia material struggle with is controlling access to content that may not be developmentally appropriate. There are going to be computer programs and sites on the Internet and television shows that have content that may be appropriate for an 18-year-old but very inappropriate for a preschool child. This means that in an environment where there is no parental control or the possibility of supervision, a child may have access to content that has extreme violence or presents inappropriate or destructive concepts, such as racism, misogyny, or age-inappropriate sexuality. In the end, as with all other tools, adults must protect children from misuse or inappropriate access.
As we begin to create more child-sensitive television, for example, we will have to recognize that young children understand in different ways than adults do. A four-year-old child seeing the Oklahoma City bombing or plane crash coverage on the news - multiple times - may think that buildings are blowing up all over the place and that many planes are crashing, rather than understanding that these multiple stories are actually single events. Access to information that is developmentally appropriate is something about which we need to be very concerned.
Bruce D. Perry, MD, PhD, is the senior fellow of CMTAS Initiative, a national organization based in Chicago and Houston. CMTAS Initiative works to bring innovations to the systems that educate, protect, and heal our children. Dr. Perry serves as the Thomas S. Trammell research professor of child psychiatry at Baylor College of Medicine and the chief of psychiatry at Texas Children's Hospital. His books include How Nurture Becomes Nature: The Influence of Social Structures on the Development of the Brain and Maltreated Children: Experience, Brain Development and the Next Generation (W.W. Norton & Co.).
This interview originally appeared in the March 1999 issue of Early Childhood Today.