Technology is transforming our imagination and our culture. We have virtually instant access to anything known, thought, or felt and, consequently, powers that were earlier described as magical. The future of this magic compels us to learn a new language of mixed meanings, ambiguities, and confusion of tongues (Pesce, 2000). Computers, the Internet, video games, and electronic toys are the new electronic playgrounds for children, combining three forms of games: practice, symbolic, and rule governed. They are also the new information network, requiring a great deal of practice to gain mastery for advancement. They allow players to engage in the as-if quality of fantasy worlds. They present a set of rules that must be discovered and mastered to win the game. The convergence of these three forms of game playing sets video games apart from traditional toys, and this combination of features may help explain the appeal that video games hold for children (Kafai, 1998). Malone and Lepper (1987) identified fantasy, challenge, curiosity, and control as major features attracting children.
Issues about appropriateness of computers and video games for preschool children are passionately debated. There is little question that preschool children can use appropriate computer programs (Clements & Nastasi, 1992). The critical issues are how and to what extent they should use them and what role computer use will play in their lives.
When computers are used appropriately in the context of complementary resources, they can have positive effects on self-esteem (Clements, Nastasi, & Swaminathan, 1993), intelligence (Haugland, 1992), creativity (Haugland, 1992; Reimer, 1985), literacy (Fein, 1987), problem-solving skills (Clements, 1986), exploration (Escobedo, 1992), use of tools in playful ways (Henniger, 1994), and provision of microworlds for children’s learning (Baird & Silvern, 1990). Computers also hold possibilities for broadening imagination and skills, even for young children. Guided play is a valuable tool for sustaining the joy of childhood while building foundations for cognitive and social development (Singer & Singer, 2005).
Despite the evidence of positive results from computer access and use, the Alliance for Childhood (2000) published a critical analysis of computers in education, and called for a moratorium on further introduction of computers in early childhood and elementary education. It claimed that computers pose serious health problems for children including eyestrain, obesity, repetitive stress injuries, and possible physical, emotional, and intellectual damage. Additional side effects include taking time from play, physical activity, and bonding with adults. The Alliance position focuses on the need for children to develop imaginative thinking, critical skills, personal interactions with adults, and engaging their hearts, minds, bodies, and hands in personal interactions not commonly received in computer activities. Too much of their computer interaction is with inappropriate adult content, aggressive advertising, and trivial games.
The David and Lucile Packard Foundation (2001), examined both sides of the issue and concluded that the growing use of computers raises both the promise of enriched learning and the risk of possible harm. Children in low socioeconomic area schools and homes generally have more limited access to equipment and fewer opportunities to use computers than more privileged children. A major problem in schools is the lack of computer training for teachers. They also warn against possible hampered social development, depression, loneliness, obesity related to inactivity, and repetitive motion injuries. They do not believe that sufficient research is available to predict the long-term effects on children’s social, physical, and cognitive development.
Technology is obviously a two-edged sword, offering both advantages and disadvantages (Ginsburg, 2001; Silvern, 1998). Computers can exert pressure on young children and detract from them valuable life experiences such as free play, art, music, and social interaction (Barnes & Hill, 1983; Brady & Hill, 1984; Elkind, 1981, 1985). Elkind warns that computers should not be allowed to replace traditional play activities, time for interaction with teachers, or give false impressions about children’s thinking abilities. Seiter (2005) argues that the Internet, allowing online chat and instant messaging, is an appallingly aggressive marketer to children and an educational boondoggle. In 2006, news reports from across the country detailed growing incidences of adult child molesters luring teenage children to sexual encounters via online chat rooms.
Haugland and Shade (1988), Dodge, Colker, and Heroman (2002), and Fischer and Gillespie (2003) offer guidelines for selecting computer programs that are congruent with the National
Association for the Education of Young Children’s (NAEYC) Developmentally Appropriate Practices (Bredekamp & Copple, 1997).
Developmentally appropriate soft-ware has the following features:
- Contains simple and spoken directions.
- Allows independent exploration and discovery.
- Is open ended and allows children to maintain control.
- Provides many opportunities for problem solving.
- Allows children to impact the program through a variety of responses.
- Emphasizes the process of discovery.
- Teaches cause-and-effect relationships.
In addition, the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) (1996) Position Statement on Technology and Young Children recommends that violent themes be avoided and that content reflect diverse cultures, ages, abilities, and family styles.
Parents, teachers, and other adults must assume responsibility for guiding children in their use of computers. Guidelines are available from a number of sources, including the American Library Association, the American Academy of Pediatrics, the ERIC Clearinghouses on Early Childhood, Elementary and Secondary Education (2000), and the National Association for the Education of Young Children (2001).
Guidelines for adults include the following:
- Stay involved in children’s computer activities including Websites, chat rooms, and computer games.
- Complement computer time with other developmentally appropriate activities, including physical activity.
- Place computers in areas that adults frequent regularly.
- Monitor and discuss the content of Websites with children and help them understand the limits imposed.
- Use filtering hardware to help ensure that objectionable material is not viewed by children.
- Seek help in selecting appropriate content for children.
- Pay attention to the food that children eat during computer use. Replace junk food with nutritious snacks.
- Pay attention to the emotions of children engaged in computer use. Look for signs of fatigue, eyestrain, and so on.
- Place limits on the amount of time that children use computers.
The guidelines for use of computers and software just noted apply generally to the selection and use of the Internet. Fortunately, research on use patterns is expanding and guidelines are becoming more reliable. The Internet itself is the best, quickest source of research about the Internet with unlimited resources available to assist people of all ages in securing information on virtually any topic.
There are potential risks for children going online, including exposure to sex and violence, pornographic peddlers, commercialism, and excessive isolation. Yet the Internet can be a useful tool in developing social, cognitive, and literacy skills (NAEYC, 1998b), in increasing family and public involvement in the schools, and in meeting the educational needs of diverse groups of students (National School Boards Foundation, 2002).
A national survey of 1,735 households nationwide (National School Boards Foundation, 2002) revealed a mostly positive picture of Internet usage by children ages 9 to 17. In about half of the households, one or more children were online, with the percentage growing to three of four teenagers. Parents and children told the researchers,
- Families buy computers for education.
- The Internet does not disrupt healthy activities.
- The Internet does not isolate children.
- Girls and boys use the Internet equally but in different ways.
- Parents trust their children’s use of the Internet.
- Most view the Internet as a valuable new tool.
Bear in mind that these conclusions reflect responses from households to a survey and do not include direct observations of children’s Internet usage. All adults involved in children’s education, especially parents and teachers, should focus on positive, constructive ways to use the Internet while remaining vigilant to possible misuse:
- Know what children are watching.
- Keep computers in open spaces where adults will be present on a regular basis.
- Discuss Internet content with children and help them develop educational projects that include Internet use.
- Balance Internet use with a range of activities that involve books, hands-on projects, and projects that require physical activity.
- Help children sort out fact from fiction in what they see on the Internet.
- Learn Internet skills so you can assist beginners and participate in some of their projects.•
- Install filtering hardware to shield children from objectionable content.
- Help children learn to shield their identity when using the Internet.
- Know about the “friends” your children are communicating with on the Internet.
- Develop plans for interaction between schools and homes on Internet usage. Open up communication via Internet as well as Page Number:85
through direct person-to-person contacts between parents and teachers.
- Involve children in setting policies for using the Internet at home and school.
- Help develop training classes for unskilled and minimally skilled parents and teachers.
The phenomenal growth of the video game industry is leading to a major new international industry. Nearly 200 colleges worldwide now offer coursework in video game development, and about two dozen offer comprehensive programs (Mclure, 2003). Computer games do not stop at the “antiseptic, socially acceptable environment” of the classroom where trained adults are present, but extend to “darker, more aggressive simulations” (Silvern, 1998, p. 530). Consider the popularity of the video game industry, the content of video games, the time devoted to video games, and the context in which they are played. The most devout players start early as children and continue their fascination into adulthood, devoting countless hours in their bedrooms, on their couches, and at friends’ houses.
Adult computer game addicts say that the games give them the same feeling they get when on amphetamines—feeling euphoric, craving more and more games, feeling unable to stop, neglecting family and friends, lying about game playing, experiencing stress disorders and sleep disturbances, feeling empty and depressed, and having school and job problems (Marriott, 1998).
Video games are generally considered to be solitary activities, but a group culture is springing up involving movies, fan clubs, and video contests, and machines are being programmed to accommodate two or more players, supporting the appealing cooperation/competition aspect of games (Malone & Lepper, 1987). The video game culture involves mainly boys (Provenzo, 1991), explained in part by the violent themes and gender stereotypes (Kinder, 1991). However, gender differences in spatial skills (favoring boys) required for success in video game play may disappear after extensive practice (Subrahmanyan & Greenfield, 1994).
A growing number of studies conclude that watching sexual violence tends to desensitize viewers to it (Mullin & Linz, 1995; Strasburger & Wilson, 2002). Gentile, Lynch, Linder, and Walsh (2002) found that eighth- and ninth-grade students exposed to more violent video games were more likely to get into fights and received lower grades in school. Twenty percent of the players said they felt addicted to the games. Buchanan et al. (2002) concluded that third- to fifth-grade students who played more violent video games were more likely to be described by their peers as mean and rude. Both these studies indicate that both amount and content of video games are important considerations for parents.
Brain research at the University of Indiana Medical School, reported by Walsh et al. (2002), concluded that playing video games resulted in reduced activity in the section of the brain controlling emotional impulses. This is consistent with the research concluding that the emotional areas of the brain of teens are still developing, and it adds further credence to the view that exposure to violence increases violence among adolescents.
Violent video games narrow children’s scope of imagination and place habitual players at risk for developing aggressive personalities, and antisocial behavior. Some games, focusing on detecting escape routes, identifying and discriminating friendly or hostile magical figures, may make constructive intellectual and creative demands on the players (Singer & Singer, 2005).
In addition to research conclusions, there are theoretical perspectives on the effects of playing video games. Griffiths (2003) hypothesizes that playing video games would have two major effects based on either social learning theory or catharsis theory. He hypothesizes that social learning supports the view that playing aggressive video games stimulates aggressive behavior. Catharsis theory, in contrast, supports the view that playing aggressive video games has a relaxing effect by channeling latent aggression and would have a positive effect on the child’s behavior. However, catharsis theory as applied to video games has much to learn from long-term experience and research in play therapy. Exposing the child repeatedly to the offending element (e.g., violent video games) is the cause, not the catharsis (therapeutic activity). In play therapy, the child is removed from the abuse or offending element and supported in her creative playing out of personal emotions related to that abuse or offending element. Catharsis is a purging phenomenon, not a process of repeating punishment over and over.
The challenge to parents, teachers, child development professionals, and the video game industry is to limit violence, monitor game selection to ensure availability of prosocial, educational games, monitor the viewing habits of children and youth, and provide healthy alternatives. They must also push for ratings enforcement and enforcement of bans on renting and selling violent video games to children. Millions of children are entertaining themselves every day with games that glamorize violence, denigrate women, and reduce time for creative, developmentally appropriate activities. In 2003, the State of Washington passed legislation prohibiting the sale of violent video games to children under the age of 17.
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