The Digital Parent Trap

Should your kids avoid tech--or embrace it?

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In that vein, the Waldorf Schools--a consortium of private K-12 schools in North America designed to "connect children to nature" and "ignite passion for lifelong learning"--limit tech in the classroom and bar the use of smartphones, laptops, televisions and even radios at home. "You could say some computer games develop creativity," says Lucy Wurtz, an administrator at the Waldorf School in Los Altos, Calif., minutes from Silicon Valley. "But I don't see any benefit. Waldorf kids knit and build things and paint--a lot of really practical and creative endeavors."

But it's not that simple. While there are dangers inherent in access to Facebook, new research suggests that social-networking sites also offer unprecedented learning opportunities. "Online, kids can engage with specialized communities of interest," says Mimi Ito, an anthropologist at the University of California at Irvine who's studying how technology affects young adults. "They're no longer limited by what's offered in school."

One girl she spoke with, for example, was able to discover an interest in writing only after she joined a community of bloggers who wrote fan fiction about their favorite wrestlers. Similar communities exist for coding, engineering and other disciplines that are not usually part of the lower-school curriculum. "Parents need to encourage that type of online learning," says Ito, "not limit it."

Early tech use has cognitive benefits as well. Although parenting experts have questioned the value of educational games--as Jim Taylor, author of Raising Generation Tech, puts it, "they're a load of crap ... meant to make money"--new studies have shown they can add real value. In a recent study by SRI, a nonprofit research firm, kids who played games like Samorost (solving puzzles) did 12% better on logic tests than those who did not. And at MIT's Education Arcade, playing the empire-building game Civilization piqued students' interest in history and was directly linked to an improvement in the quality of their history-class reports.

The reason: engagement. On average, according to research cited by MIT, students can remember only 10% of what they read, 20% of what they hear and 50% of what they see demonstrated. But when they're actually doing something themselves--in the virtual worlds on iPads or laptops--that retention rate skyrockets to 90%.

This is a main reason researchers like Ito say the American Academy of Pediatrics' recommendation of a two-hour screen-time limit is an outdated concept: actively browsing pages on a computer or tablet is way more brain-stimulating than vegging out in front of the TV.

The most convincing argument for early-age tech fluency, however, is more basic: staying competitive. "If you look at applying for college or a job, that's on the computer," says Shawn Jackson, principal of Spencer Tech, a public school in one of Chicago's lower-income neighborhoods. Ditto the essential skills for jobs in fast-growing sectors such as programming, engineering and biotechnology. "If we're not exposing our students to this stuff early," Jackson continues, "they're going to be left behind."

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