Look Before You Leap

A friend of ours -- you might call him techno-challenged man -- recently met the guy who invented the E-book. That's the little hand-held computer that carries hundreds of books and that let's you read them on an easy reading screen.

The inventor told our friend that in five years, his invention will carry one million books -- all easily accessible, all searchable, all without paper.

"Even I was sold," said challenged man.

"You won't even have to leave the house," we said.

"Reading has always been a solitary endeavor," he said.

"Yes, but at least you had to get out of the house, say hello to the librarian, or the bookseller," we replied. "What happens to them?"

Now, don't get all excited, techies. Yes, we are writing this on a computer. Yes, we are sending this over the Internet.

But beware! A backlash is brewing against computer mania. We have leaped before we looked. And some are now predicting a crash landing.

Last month, the Alliance for Childhood (www.allianceforchildhood.net) a group of more than 75 educators, child-development and health authorities called for a time-out from the overwhelming pressure on educators and parents to computerize childhood.

They released a report, "Fool's Gold: A Critical Look at Computers in Childhood." The group, which includes Harvard professor of psychiatry Alvin Poussaint, child and adolescent psychiatrist Marilyn Benoit, and Mary Pipher, author of Reviving Ophelia, issued a statement calling for a moratorium on the further introduction of computers in early childhood and elementary education -- except for special cases of students with certain disabilities.

We've always felt a little queasy when politicians like Al Gore and George Bush promised to put a computer in every classroom. But we didn't know why. Now we do.

The signers of the call for a moratorium said that a time-out is necessary to "create a climate for a broad national discussion about the serious developmental risks" posed by computers in childhood.

They noted that research does not support the current and proposed expenditures of billions of dollars on technology in primary schools, as the Clinton-Gore administration now advocates.

Research shows that far better than sticking kids in front of computers is putting them with caring adults, engaging them in creative play, outdoor experiences with nature, the arts, and hands-on learning of all kinds.

There they sit in front of their glaring screens, playing video games, sipping on sugar and water (Coke or Pepsi?) and eating junk food. Is it any wonder that this generation of children is the most sedentary in U.S. history?

The Alliance is so concerned about the problem, that they called on the Surgeon General of the United States to prepare a comprehensive report on the physical, emotional, and other developmental hazards that computers pose to children.

They warned of social isolation, obesity, eyestrain, and repetitive stress injuries. Margit Bleeker, a neurologist, said that repetitive stress injuries among the young "is probably a time bomb waiting to go off."

The Alliance estimates that public elementary schools would have to spend about $8 billion per year to meet the technology goals promoted by Clinton/Gore. Those schools spent more than $4 billion in the 1999-2000 school year on computers and all of the costs related to them.

"That money could be better spent on proven educational interventions for children at risk of school failure, including smaller classes and smaller schools, higher salaries to attract and retain good teachers, and early attention to nutrition, high-quality child care and health care, and safe housing," said Joan Almon, a former kindergarten teacher and the U.S. coordinator of the Alliance for Childhood.

To make way in their budgets for the computer onslaught, many schools are choosing to cut back on field trips in nature, music, the arts, library books, and time for play or recess.

But it is exactly these programs that most benefit at-risk children.

"It is within the context of human relationships, play and interactions with nature that we socialize our children," said Dr. Benoit of Howard University Hospital in Washington, D.C. "Premature relegation of learning to computer interaction will rob them of both that civilizing influence and of their innate creativity."

Bailus Walker, Jr., a former president of the American Public Health Association, said that the money spent on computers could be better spent removing lead paint from housing in poor neighborhoods. When it comes to our children's readiness to learn, "being unleaded is a lot more urgent than being online," Walker said.

Edward Miller, a co-author of the report and former editor of the Harvard Education Letter, said that children of wealth and privilege are enjoying advantages of smaller class size, individual and personal attention from caring adults and hands on experience with arts, science, and nature.

"These experiences come with proven benefits," Miller said. "To spend precious resources on unproven computer technology when we know that millions of young children lack these bare essentials is educational malpractice."

Walk into any public library these days and chances are that you will be confronted by a phalanx of computers. Children are immediately drawn to them, as we were drawn to television when we were kids.

It is clear to us now that television has done more damage than good to our society. Unless we act now, computers may do the same to our children.

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