Do computers damage young children's brains?
Do computers damage young children's brains?
It's a question many of us hard-pushed parents struggle with when we're juggling the demands of preparing meals, housework and god knows what else each and every day.
It is so much easier to plonk them in front of a screen and let our little 'uns get on with it while we get on with the relentlessness of domestic life.
It's especially difficult to keep them away from small-screen entertainment when young ones have older siblings.
If their older brothers and sisters are allowed to play on Moshi Monsters, Bin Weevils or Club Penguin - or lord knows what else - then why can't they?
You're a better parent than me if you can resist a tantrum or a sulky face – or faces, if you insist that no one can play rather than allow one to go online.
And let's face it, the line of least resistance is the line many of us reluctantly follow.
So I was heartened this week to read that computer time, even for children as young as three years old, is no bad thing.
The logic goes that the whole of mankind is going to exist online one day, so why not give our offspring a head start?
It's a question that has been worked on by boffins in America. In 2007, MIT's Lifelong Kindergarten group released a computer programme called Scratch, aimed at kids aged 8 to 13.
It allows them to build animations, games, music, videos and stories using the child-friendly programming language.
Scratch allows children to snap together graphical blocks of instructions, like Lego bricks, to control sprites-the movable objects that perform actions. Sprites can dance, sing, run and talk.
Now they've turned their attentions to Scratch Jr, a new version aimed at children aged 3 to 8.
The new project raises questions about childhood development and digital learning, and just how early kids should be introduced to computers.
Unsurprisingly, Mitch Resnick, director of the Lifelong Kindergarten group, is its fiercest advocate.
Resnick was struck by the lack of software that enabled kids to go beyond playing with other people's media. There was nothing that encouraged them to make their own interactive stories and games.
"Computers for most people are black boxes," he said.
"I believe kids should understand objects are 'smart' not because they're just smart, but because someone programmed them to be smart.
"What's most important to me is that young children start to develop a relationship with the computer where they feel they're in control.
"We don't want kids to see the computer as something where they just browse and click. We want them to see digital technologies as something they can use to express themselves."
And he is almost evangelical about its benefits – and importance to future society.
"At one point, there was a growing realisation that people needed to learn how to write as well as read," Resnick said. "They needed to be able to express themselves as well as understand how other people expressed themselves.
Now it's the same with new media. It's not enough to be able to interact with new technologies; you have to be able to create with new technologies.
I've seen first-hand how enticing and – in my opinion – educational computers can be in my own family.
My three children – aged 10, seven and four – use them for everything from homework to entertainment relaxation.
And for me, as a working-from-home primary carer dad, I confess they are a a godsend at keeping the kids occupied while I get on with other stuff that needs to be done around a busy and cluttered family home.
But I can also see the dark side. My four year-old's first waking thought is to go on the computer. His first request on getting home from school is to go on the computer.
This is a boy who I believe may have delayed speech issues and I wonder if my allowing him to access the computer so much is part of the problem.
My excuse is sheer lack of willpower on my part. If my youngest's brother and sister have access, then he wants access, too – and boy, does he let me know it if I deprive him.
In other words, I let him play on Moshi, or Bin Weevils, or Club Penguin because it's the easy option.
But is it damaging him?
Some experts believe the answer is an unequivocal Yes.
They argue that time in front of a computer screen fundamentally changes a child's brain chemistry, and even damages young brains.
Baroness Professor Susan Greenfield, director of the Royal Institution believes this could be creating a generation blighted by obesity and gambling.
Writing for the Frontline Club, she said: "The human brain is exquisitely sensitive to every event. We cannot complacently take it that our ways of learning and thinking will remain constant.
"Humans are highly responsive to change and so quick to adapt - in part because of the prefrontal cortex.
"If we were to scan the brains of young people who spend a lot of time playing computer games and in chatrooms, we would find that the prefrontal cortex is damaged, underdeveloped or underactive - just as it is in gamblers, schizophrenics or the obese.
"We would find that they become confused between reality and screen life in their virtual world. And that in this confusion, they risk losing, neurologically, the ability to think.
"For centuries, humans have listened to stories that have long working memories. When you read a book, the author takes you by the hand and you travel from the beginning to the middle to the end in a continuous narrative of interconnected steps.
"We can then compare one narrative with another and so build up a conceptual framework that enables us to evaluate further journeys which, in turn, will influence our individualised framework.
"We can place an isolated fact in a context that gives it a significance. The narrative - the basis of traditional education - enables us to turn information into knowledge.
"Now imagine there is no robust conceptual framework. You are sitting in front of a multimedia presentation, such as a computer game or chatroom, where you are unable, because you have not had the experience of many different intellectual journeys, to evaluate what is flashing up on the screen.
The immediate reaction would be to place a premium on the most obvious feature - the sensory content, the 'yuk' and 'wow' factor. You would be having an experience rather than learning.
"The sounds and sights of a fast-moving multimedia presentation displace any time for reflection or any idiosyncratic or imaginative connections we might make as we turn the pages, and then stare at a wall to reflect upon them.
"Screen life has no memory: it is reaction-action-reaction-action-reaction. If you live in that cacophonic environment for six hours or more a day and at a time when the prefrontal cortex is forming, becoming developed and active, what is going to be the effect?
"In neurochemical terms, it is similar to gambling or taking drugs. It shows the same disregard for consequence and a confusion between reality and screen life as if you beat up an old lady on the street, recorded it with your mobile and put it on YouTube.
"The hypothesis is that those exposed to this environment over a period of time become emotionally stunted.
"It is hard to see how living this way on a daily basis will not result in brains becoming different from those of previous generations."
Perhaps, though, there is somewhere in the middle; somewhere that we parents can feel comfortable about allowing our offspring to engage in the modern reality of computers whilst at the same time nurturing the wider aspect of their development.
Speech and language therapist Sophie Jankel agrees.
She told parentdish.co.uk: "In general it's one of those things that needs to be done in moderation.
"It can definitely help to aid in their understanding of language and perhaps problem solving skills also (now you can use iPad apps that are specificaly designed to aid in children's development of speech and language).
"However it doesn't give them opportunities to develop their speaking, or social skills and can be detrimental to their attention skills as they may only be able to focus on it because of how visually appealing it is and the sounds that go with it.
"It's good to use computer games as a reward to help motivate a child and help then follow adult led instructions/activities, in which case its use needs to be restricted at all other times so they are not able to access it.
"In general it's better for a child to interact with adults or other children but playing a computer game from time to time won't harm them as long as its not the only input they're getting."
• What do you think? Should very young children be allowed to play on computers or banned altogether?