In an increasingly technological world, computer literacy is vital—and most parents don't want their children to fall behind. But some educators and parents have questioned the unbridled embrace of this technology. Just when should a child begin learning with computers? Do computers stifle imagination and creativity? And how do we protect kids from potentially harmful websites?

What Is Age Appropriate?

There is more and more software for the very young. Called lapware, these products imitate early learning experiences, such as matching shapes and learning the alphabet, and some parents see this as a way for their children to get a competitive jump start on their peers.

Joe L., for example, started his son, Alex, on the computer at nine months. "I thought of it as an introduction to a machine that is going to profoundly affect his life," he said.

But other parents point out that even talented musicians often don't pick up instruments until the age of six or seven, and that the infinite flexibility of children and their sponge-like learning capability means that using a computer is a nonessential step in early child development.

"My son was more interested in baseball [than computers] when he was three," said Mary L. "I'm sure he'll learn to use the computer when he reaches school-age, but I think it's more important to follow his instincts during the early years."

Letting your toddler take the lead with computers is probably the best course. If he or she seems to enjoy it, you might want to invest in some early learning software. While this on-screen learning may be no more educational than an old-fashioned game of jacks, it's a great opportunity to turn computer time into quality time by doing it together.

By the time children reach school-age, however, the computer will probably be a regular part of their school day. Some elementary school teachers use the computer as a reward for finishing regular schoolwork or as a "workstation" within the classroom for particular assignments. Students can work independently or play learning games with other children. In the higher grades, computer labs are very popular with students required to participate in organized activities at a particular skill level.

What Constitutes Competency?

Competency for students in lower grades might include basic skills such as starting up the system and shutting it down, using the mouse, clicking on appropriate icons, and following print instructions. Children as young as six or seven should be able to write and send email.

Older students should be able to use instructional software in several content areas, understand basic computer vocabulary, and show skill with drawing tools and logical thinking programs.

What Should Kids Use the Computer For?

Disagreement among some experts concerning the use of computers in grade school seemingly hasn't decreased the number of kids online. But there is still debate about what kinds of computer activities are most beneficial to learning.

Some educators argue that the power of the computer lies in its ability to provide drill-and-practice exercises that help kids master the basics of science, math, or phonics. They claim it's the computer's unique capability to offer instant feedback and self-guided instruction along with motivational icons and games for added interest that makes it a useful learning tool.

Other educators known as "constructivists" believe that kids should use the computer to build their own knowledge by running simulations or writing and drawing stories of their own. They maintain that "drill-and-kill" can damage kids' creative instincts and turn them into automatons only interested in gaining rewards for the right answers.

What's a Parent to Do?

As a parent, it's most important that you understand the differences in software and don't assume that all computer activities provide the same kinds of skills or experiences. That way you can provide your kids with the kinds of programs and activities they need at a given point in time.

Staying in sync with your children as they become progressively more adept at the computer can help you track their progress and influence their ability to creatively use the computer in future work scenarios.

Health and Safety Issues

It appears that kids are not at risk for the same kind of stress-related injuries that affect many adults who spend long hours on a computer. However, they can experience other aches and pains resulting from extended times in front of the screen, sitting in poorly designed chairs, or working in spaces that are insufficiently lit. At home, position the computer in a well-lit and comfortable area.

Helping your children develop good work habits around the computer will serve them well in later life. Here are a few good rules of thumb:

  • Use desk lights instead of ceiling lights.
  • Place the computer at a right angle to the window to avoid glare and be alert for any sort of flicker that can cause eye strain.
  • Teach children to take eye breaks: 15 minutes for every hour of computer use and 10 seconds every 10 minutes to avoid eye strain.
  • Encourage good posture and sitting up straight in a well-fitted chair.
  • Make sure your children's feet reach the floor; if they don't, try a footrest.
  • Recognize that computers can exert a powerful hold on children's attention, so advise them to change positions to avoid fatigue.

The Internet

As the gateway to a vast resource of information, the Internet can be a profoundly engaging opportunity for your child, but there are risks to be aware of. Some parents are concerned about their children innocently divulging sensitive financial information. Others worry about inappropriate and sexually explicit websites, social networking websites, internet services, and chat rooms that leave unsuspecting children open to sexual exploitation.

Protecting young children from these kinds of activities is relatively easy with the filtering features built into popular Internet browsers. Or you can buy and install special tools that block or filter undesirable and inappropriate sites. Some products block certain keywords or have features that allow parents to monitor email, chat, and website activity.

Adolescents and the Internet

With the right software in place, you can limit young children's access to particular websites. But when your children reach adolescence, security becomes a different issue. A natural interest and curiosity in sexuality and sexually explicit material may lead children to use their Internet access to seek out such material and sites. In doing so, they are vulnerable to people eager to exploit their naiveté. Older children can be taught to avoid sexual situations, but may instead be susceptible to overspending money at online sites that sell music, books, or games.

Monitoring your children's interest in the computer and keeping open lines of communication will help minimize the chances of them becoming victims of online exploitation or irresponsible spending. Help them learn to use Internet resources responsibly and lay down ground rules about online buying. Talk to them about the risks involved in talking with strangers in a chat room, and ask your children to let you know if they are approached online by strangers who get particularly friendly or start asking for personal information. If you feel you need to monitor your children's email, do so only with their full knowledge.

Your Job Is to Guide

Preparing your children to be computer capable is essential, but don't feel they must start before they can read. There's plenty of time for them to get online. Once they're in school, monitor their progress and make sure they're using the technology responsibly. Learning the basics is their job. Helping them find their way along the information highway is yours.