Lost on keyboard

Gadgets galore, but children miss out on life

October 31, 2005

First it was transistor radios and then television sets. Then it was VCRs and video games. And nowadays, it's home computers and cell phones. It seems there is always some new gadget, gizmo or high-tech device against which parents must compete for their children's attention.

Take computers, for instance. Up to now, a lot of parents – including many who come down hard on television and video games – have pretty much given home computers a "pass" and said nary a word about how much time their children spend staring at screens and poking at keyboards. Some probably even tell themselves that these computers are educational tools, and that the time their children spend with them is the equivalent of time doing school work.

There's one big exception, of course: A lot of parents are rightly concerned that their children not be exposed, via the Internet, to pornography and other material inappropriate for minors. Some even block out offensive material or monitor what their children are visiting on the Web.

Good for them. But what if it turned out that the real problem with children and computers is not what is being consumed but rather what's being lost via the consumption? That is, what do children lose by spending so much time slouching in front of a computer screen or yakking away on a cell phone?

First, exactly how much time are we talking about? It's hard to say. A recent survey of 8-to 18-year-olds by the Kaiser Family Foundation found that the total amount of media content to which young people are now exposed each day has reached eight-and-one-half hours. When you factor in multitasking, the study says, the figure gets compressed to six-and-one-half hours a day. That includes everything from watching television to listening to music to playing video games. It also includes more than an hour spent on the computer. Another report on teenagers and technology released this summer by the Pew Internet and American Life Project found that teenagers' use of computers has increased significantly in the last five years. More than half of teenage Internet users go online daily, up from 42 percent in 2000.

No matter how you divide it up, this love affair with the electronic media represents time that kids aren't using to play outdoors, read books or just interact with other human beings. Anyone remember face-to-face conversation? And that, according to experts in child development, is the real problem. While they're engaged in these sedentary and solitary pursuits, young people aren't developing their social skills. And without social skills, they might not grow up to be as successful in life as they might have otherwise.

Now that's something we should all be worried about. Parents should start looking beyond content and limit the amount of time their children spend online or otherwise toying with computers. Someday, their children may thank them. And so will the rest of society.