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Computers Boost Preschool Kids' Intelligence

But Too Much Computer Time Could Hamper Development

WebMD Health News

June 7, 2004 -- Preschoolers who use computers are smarter. They're also better prepared for school, research shows. Just be careful: Too much computer time may have negative effects -- even on very young children.

"We believe that early access to computers does help kids learn," lead researcher Xiaoming Li, PhD, professor of pediatrics at Wayne State University in Detroit, tells WebMD.

"But we have to be cautious with this," Li says. "We don't want parents to use the computer as a baby sitter." His study appears in the June issue of the medical journal Pediatrics.

The finding is "very exciting," says Tiffany Field, PhD, a psychologist and director of the Touch Therapy Institute at the University of Miami School of Medicine.

"Particularly in low-income families, a computer really puts children in touch with the world," she tells WebMD. "And it is another form of stimulation -- just like classical music and massage. It doesn't seem to matter whether it's auditory stimulation like music, or tactile like massage, or visual like a computer -- all increase intelligence to the same degree."

But she voices concerns, too: "Just as with older kids, young children will get fat, their social development will suffer [if they are inactive], and they could have more trouble sleeping [if they get too much] stimulation. Sleep deprivation has terrible effects on little kids," she tells WebMD.

Help or Hindrance?

Experts have disputed the effect of computers on a young child's development. Studies have found that computers can teach letters and numbers, which helps give children's self-esteem a boost. However, studies have also shown limitations -- that computers don't prepare kids for reading or participating in discussions.

Li set out to examine this issue. He says what he found surprised him. Home computers were present among many families with very tight budgets. Preschoolers in those homes were using the computers. They were also using computers at parents' worksites, the library, and the babysitter's house.

"We found more kids had computer access than we anticipated," Li tells WebMD. "We thought these rural low-income families would have little access, but that wasn't true."

Thumbs Up

The 122 4-year-olds in Li's study were enrolled in a rural Head Start program in an economically depressed region of West Virginia. "We wanted to pick a population with a limited access to computers. In the urban middle class, all families have them," he tells WebMD.

Parents completed a questionnaire: Did their home have a computer? Did the children use it? How often? Was there a video game system like the Nintendo GameCube, Microsoft Xbox, or Sony Playstation 2? Also, did the children have access to a computer outside the home?

He found that about half of the families -- 53% -- had a computer at home, and most had some sort of game system, too.

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