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."
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.
- 83% of home computers had children's software on their computer.
- 29% of children used their home computer daily; 44% used it at least weekly
- 56% of families without a home computer had access to one elsewhere.
- 10% of those children without home access used that computer daily; 33% used it weekly.
"Many kids took advantage of computers in other settings (like the babysitter's house)," Li tells WebMD. "That was good news."
The children were given several tests to measure their eye-hand coordination, motor skills (like running, jumping, catching) and their IQ. Their "school readiness" was also evaluated: Could they follow directions and understand concepts like big and small, right and left?
Importantly, "we didn't see any problems in eye-hand or motor development," says Li. "We didn't see deteriorating impact of computer use."
The Good News
In fact, it was all good news. Preschoolers with computer access had:
- Higher skill development test scores -- twice as high
- IQ scores 12 points higher than kids who didn't use computers
- Better school readiness scores
Were the children using educational software or just playing games? His study didn't look at that specifically. However, it did show that some computer or electronic game exposure was better than none.
"These kids are very young," Li explains. "They cannot do Excel or Power Point. They must be limited to simple games or simple learning. How the child uses the computer may not be important. But whether they use it is important."
Too Much Computer Time = Bad News
Li didn't examine the parents' role in the computer use scenario. "That could make a huge difference in how frequently kids played on the computer," Li explains. "Some parents leave kids in front of the computer every day, make it into a babysitter, so the parents can do something else. We don't want to encourage that."
Too-frequent use seemed to have some negative effects, Li reports. In his study, children who used the computer less often were better prepared for school. Daily and even weekly use left them less prepared.
In future reports, Li will look at effects of educational software in Head Start classrooms. Each child gets to spend 15 to 20 minutes a day on the computer, he says. The children's social, psychological, and physical development will be tested.
"A lot of people have very strong arguments against computer use by kids -- that it could have a negative social and motivational impact," says Li. "We believe that's true."
Teachers must be careful to limit computer use, Field adds. "If preschools like Head Start start putting too many computers and not allowing enough pretend time -- that's how children learn how to have empathy, learn to be someone else. It develops their creativity and imagination and their social sense. They learn to take turns."