Help! My Kid's A Computer Junky!

Ann Orr, Ed.D., Children's Software Revue

It's no secret that the CSR staff are obsessed with computers and software. We spend all day (and sometimes all night) playing with hundreds of programs that cross our desks. Through the parent grapevine we’ve begun hearing about a similar phenomenon&emdash; children who spend hours upon hours in front of their Macs and PCs, totally immersed in the software world. These kids can’t seem to get enough of the computer, with some youngsters preferring the activity over just about anything else! We call them (affectionately) "computer junkies."

Four year old Sally is creating quite a stir with her family. Her grandparents, aunts and older brothers gather in amazement as she demonstrates her ability to navigate around Windows 95. She’s even taught her dad how to launch programs. On the downside, this same girl cried after opening each of her Christmas presents this year, because the gifts weren’t software!

Yet another adventurous four year old called Children's Software Revue's 800 number one day and tried to order a Barbie title (even though we don’t sell software) from "the book with the stars in it." Her astounded mother intercepted the call and explained her daughter's infatuation with software.

In one of our test families, the mother of two boys, ages 12 and 15, finds it necessary to physically unplug the keyboard and take it with her to work during the day because her 12 year old spends so much time hogging the computer that his older brother never gets a chance. She fears that her younger son will break her computer system, as well as his relationship with his brother.

Many children become hooked on the interactive nature of computers. Parents we’ve talked to have mixed feelings about these kids, ranging from pride to anxiety. For such children, insatiable computer interest is satisfied only by lengthy computer sessions, which can sometimes lead to excessive phone/Internet access charges. Parents ask us "How much is too much?" and truthfully, we don’t know.

Each child and family situation is unique, so it would be inappropriate for us to make universal guidelines. We also keep in mind that computer junkies may be actually sharpening valuable skills that they’ll use later in life. Still, we can apply some time-tested child development knowledge to offer a few suggestions.

Tip 1. Examine Your Software Library
Your child’s computer diet is only as good as the choices on the menu. The best programs are fun (and potentially addicting) but have educational value as well. When you examine your software library, make sure you have programs that offer some of the following:

  • Multiple challenge levels, or expanding complexity.
  • Features for more than one player.
  • Random generation techniques that make each replay new.
  • Open-ended features and activities that call upon your child’s imagination to design projects, make crafts, create Internet sites, write songs, make movies and other creative pursuits.

Tip 2. Make the Computer Activity a Social One
Try moving the computer to a central, social location in the house (or classroom), such as a family room or close to the kitchen. This cuts down on a child’s isolation making the computer activity more of a family event. If computer noise is a problem, get a pair of headphones. Look for software that can be used by several people at one time. There are programs that feature games and activities for two or more &emdash; Arthur’s Reading Race, for example, or games like Scrabble or Monopoly.

Tip 3. Take Advantage of Your Child’s Interest
Given the right software, the computer can be used as a tool to address both strengths and weaknesses in academics. Everybody’s happy in this scenario: your child is excited to use the computer, and you’re pleased that he or she is practicing essential math skills at the same time. Frequently our test families use free choice computer time as a reward, allowing access only after the room is clean or the homework is finished.

Tip 4. Set Limits That Make Sense To You
Use a kitchen timer to limit computer time if you must. If your child’s over-usage occurs with the Internet, you’ll want to set time limits and decide who’s responsible for paying the bills. Older children can use their allowance to help cover costs. You might also want to control the password or look into Internet protection packages to ensure safety and appropriateness of subject matter. If you have a child who is over-using the printer, try taping a dime and a penny to a sheet of paper. Hang this visual reminder by the printer to help children conceptualize how much ink cartridges and paper cost.

 

"Each child and family situation is unique, so it would be inappropriate for us to make universal guidelines. We also keep in mind that computer junkies may be actually sharpening valuable skills that they'll use later in life. Still, we can apply some time-tested child development knowledge to offer a few suggestions."


      

 
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