i-052224534a6e255e49713a5f6be9b44e-FCC's Broadband the cat.JPG
My 3-year-old son Julian is obsessed with typing and sending emails to his grandparents. Whenever he sees me working on my laptop, he cries out to visit the Sesame Street site online and its various games. But so far, we have tried to limit his computer time to 20 minutes per week, just as we try to limit TV time to about an hour per day at most.

My question to you was when is it appropriate for a young child to start using a computer. You all shared your experiences raising your kids, and one common theme came through: set and enforce time limits for kids, and parental involvement is key. Don’t just let your kid go online and surf around on their own.

And when they do go online, it’s amazing how many resources there are for them to help learn the lingo of the online world. Even the stodgy Federal Communications Commission has a Kids Zone complete with a goofy mascot named Broadband the Cat (pictured above).

In 2003, the Kaiser Family Foundation and University of Texas released a groundbreaking study about media use by young kids titled, “Zero to Six: Electronic Media in the Lives of Infants, Toddlers and Preschoolers.” They were amazed to find that children six and under spend an average of about two hours a day with screen media, about the same amount of time they spend playing outside and about three times as much time as they spend reading or being read to (39 minutes).

“I had no idea that young children — I mean babies — are being immersed in media the way they are,” said Dr. Ellen Wartella, who was at the University of Texas and co-authored the report. “I think the single most surprising piece of data was finding that 26 percent of children under two have television sets in their bedroom.”

Wartella is now the executive vice chancellor and provost at the University of California at Riverside, and says that a new study of young children’s media usage will be coming out in May. She told me she agrees with the recommendation from the American Academy of Pediatrics that no child under the age of two be put in front of a TV because babies and toddlers have a huge need for direct interaction with parents and other people. However, so far, there haven’t been any studies showing the effects of early media usage by young kids.

“We have no data that suggests screen time is harmful for young children,” Wartella told me via email. “We also have not studied the topic in great detail. Psychologist Dan Anderson has been conducting a series of studies on very young children, those under 30 months, to see when they develop screen literacy or the ability to learn from (in his case) television. It is unclear at what age — and probably not before age two — that children develop screen literacy…what and if they are learning from screen media before this age is not at all clear.”

Many of you said that your children did have exposure to computers as babies and that in some cases music and visualizers from your computers helped calm them. Peter, who blogs at The Peter Files, said his baby son watched the iTunes display at less than six months old.

“As soon as he had enough manual dexterity to push a key, less than 6 months I think, he had learned how to change manipulate the colors and shapes a little by hitting several keys on the left side of the keyboard and to change a song he didn’t like by hitting the right arrow key,” Peter wrote. “He thought the colors and patterns on the screen were fascinating. As he got tired he would look at them, sometimes in wonder and excitement, other times with curiosity and the desire to control something, anything, at a time when he could hardly walk.

“Did he get to sleep any earlier? Hard to say. It did not reduce our father/son reading time, it just expanded our quiet rocking together time where we were non-verbally experiencing the music and the lights together.”

April said that her son also was exposed to a computer at an early age, but she tries not to overdo it.

“My son began ‘using’ the computer at 4 months old,” she wrote. “Now, at 6 months old, he loves ‘typing’ and looking at still pictures of babies. I don’t have him watching moving pictures with bright colors and things though. I do fear overstimulation. I think when your child shows interest is when you should let them learn.”

A lot of you warned about giving your kids too much freedom online, and said that setting boundaries was important.

“We have 4 children aged 12, 10, 7 and 4,” wrote Tonya. “They are limited to 1 hour of screen a day. They may earn up to one 1/2 hour more if they read for 1/2 hour or go outside and play for an hour. (There’s more freedom on Saturdays.) As for the computer, we have some educational programs and I used them in small doses (10-15 minutes) as early as maybe 20 or 22 months. My 4-year-old ‘plays’ Reader Rabbit and is learning to read.”

Philip stressed how important it is to monitor kids’ computer use.

“How early to allow kids to use computers is probably different for each child — our 6-year-old son started at 2 years of age — but what my wife and I now realize is that it’s critical to closely monitor and LIMIT our son’s time spent using the computer (and watching TV),” Philip wrote. “We’ve found that computer games, even the educational ones (Leapster, etc.) tend to dampen his desire to participate in non-computer activities like playing outside, participating in team sports, or painting and drawing. I also think computer games could be slowing his social and emotional development.

“Last week, as punishment for hitting another child at school, we turned off the computer and the TV and we were pleased to see our son’s general behavior improve. He was more attentive and less prone to tantrums. He happily played with his toys, read books and created artwork. It’s really opened our eyes to the powerful affect (good and bad) that computers can have on kids.”

Of course, even with all the limits, as kids get older, it’s impossible to keep them from all objectionable material online. Cao Kun, writing from Shanghai, China, said there are a lot of pluses and minuses with the rise of technology in our childrens’ lives.

“What role kids’ parents play is pivotal in guiding kids as to what’s beneficial and what’s detrimental over the Internet,” Cao wrote. “People, groups and organizations from all walks of life are out to create a better and cleaner virtual environment for kids, even though all actions and measures we take can’t prevent vicious stuff from approaching our kids with 100% guarantee.”

Kids will and should learn computer skills at some point, so we should try to make it a healthy experience when the time comes. Marie noted that if we are going to limit kids’ screen time, we have to practice what we preach.

“When my son is distracted from a responsibility, whatever distracted him gets taken away for a day,” she wrote. “If he fails to clean his room in a timely fashion because he was watching TV, the TV goes. There doesn’t have to be a fight. It’s just a fact. And as parents, we have to practice what we preach. Do we sit in front of our computer and TV, or do we make time for family time? Why would our children be inclined to do other things if he or she never sees us do other things? (I’m just as guilty as the next…) A child craves and needs direction. Guess what OUR job is!”