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    Emotional, Social and Personal Aspects of Children's Computer Use

    Excerpted from
    Failure to Connect
    By Jane M. Healy, Ph.D.

    At a reception on the White House lawn following a conference on early childhood brain development and learning, I am talking with two noted pediatric neurologists who are interested in the book I am writing.

    "Well, tell those parents not to let those kids spend so much time on the computer!" exclaims one doctor. "I'm seeing these kids who've spent hours and hours, and some of them actually look autistic."

    The other nods her head. "It's true. We're seeing more and more. The computer is substituting for personal contact and for other activities in so many households. Language, social skills, the ability to play imaginatively-they're all suffering."

    "Are you serious? Surely, computer use couldn't make a child autistic." I am incredulous. I have read the research and I know that true autism is a brain-based disorder that develops irrespective of home environment, although extreme variations in experience can either mimic some of its symptoms or bring them out in a vulnerable child.

    The doctors exchange a knowing look. "These days were not exactly sure how we're defining autism," one finally says. "Well, let s just say 'autistic-like,' " they agree.

    Temple Grandin, successful autistic professor and author of several books in which she describes the painful social isolation of autism, believes she finds in the computer an analogue of her own "wiring." "I use Internet talk because there is nothing closer to how I think," she stated in a recent interview.

    Computer technology can be used either to help connect children to the world of humanity or to separate them from it. In extreme cases, like Justin's, too much virtual life can bypass critical experiences and result in lasting handicaps. Yet some adults are so focused on their children's mental abilities they neglect human qualities that extend beyond IQ.

    Success Lies Beyond IQ

    In his book Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ, Daniel Goleman collated decades of research on intelligence and concluded that as a culture we underestimate the importance of social and emotional skills. In the long run, they are much better predictors of success than so-called mental ability. The fact that this book catapulted to the best-seller list and stayed there for a long time suggests that Goleman hit a resonant chord in today's information-saturated culture.

    Goleman warns of a dramatic drop in "emotional competence" over the past two decades, what other psychologists have called an "emotional deficiency disease." Between the mid-1970s and late 1980s, American children on average had gone down on forty indicators of emotional and social well-being. These findings are worrisome since Goleman finds that IQ, or tested intelligence, contributes only about 20 percent to financial and personal success; the rest is highly dependent on social-emotional abilities.

    Social-emotional factors are also astonishing predictors of mental ability. For example, in one study preschoolers' self-control was assessed by determining whether they could delay the instant gratification of eating one marshmallow in favor of waiting fifteen to twenty minutes for the promise of two marshmallows. Fourteen years later, the same children were evaluated; those who had been able to control their behavior were more emotionally stable, better liked by teachers and peers, and scored an average of 210 points higher on the SAT. While such correlational studies do not prove this one ability caused the differences, factors far beyond IQ_are increasingly associated with effective mental habits.

    Dorothy Rich, popular author of Megaskills, has shown that teaching children lifelong habits such as motivation, initiative, caring, teamwork, and common sense causes significant differences in both academic and personal outcomes. Youngsters who lack important personal and social habits will be at the mercy of computers, rather than in control of them, she suggests.

    So why are these skills in such a state of decline? Goleman doesn't mince words when it comes to attributing much of the slippage to newer media-including computers.

    "Kids are spending more time glued to a TV or in front of a computer, away from other children or adults. And most of the emotional skills I've discussed aren't learned on your own, they're learned through your interaction with other children and adults. That's why the emphasis on computers concerns me, helpful as they can be. More time with computers and TV means less time with other people," he stated in a recent interview.

    Many prospective employers worldwide express more interest in social and emotional intelligence than in technical skills. A recent survey in Switzerland revealed that large firms (e.g., engineering companies, banks) wanted employees with the following characteristics: self-discipline, initiative, ability to concentrate, communication skills, creativity, team effort, flexibility, honesty, enjoyment of people-the very skills that are in decline. Good grades in secondary school were mentioned far down on the list, and computer expertise did not make it at all.

    Psychologist Robert Coles agrees that today's culture is neglecting important personal values, but he places his emphasis on the development of "moral intelligence." Many of our children today are in great need of adult guidance-"moral companionship" in Coles' words-but no one seems to have time to give it to them. One casualty is the ability to be morally introspective and to reflect on one's own values. Many of today s youngsters reflect more on the video display terminal than muse about themselves and their values.

    So how much does computer use affect social, emotional, and personal development, including important life habits such as motivation, attention, and memory? How do we help youngsters develop all the characteristics that make up "selfhood"-self-knowledge, values, reflection, caring, spontaneous play, and personal joy? If we develop children who are empty of all but what is beamed into them from outside, we will have begotten nothing but the sad shells of our own ambitions.

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