Too Much Computer Time for Kids?

Parents are important in education. I see that a lot, and I buy into it. The argument is made again yesterday by Daniel Akst in the Wall Street Journal. Akst repeats a common theme within that story — that kids spend too much time with TV, video games and computers. Personally I think that part of the story is old and tired.

Let’s talk about some kids who spent too much time with computers. How about Bill Gates? He spent so much time with computers that he dropped out of college. Harvard no less. Think what he could have become if he had only stayed in school. From that generation you can include Paul Allen, Steve Jobs, and Steve Wozniak. And in modern times, take a look at Mark Zuckerberg. He started Facebook when he was only 19 years old, so it’s safe to say he’d spent a lot of time with computers when he was younger. I’m betting Larry Page and Sergey Brin also wasted time with computers during their teens and maybe earlier.

For those who don’t know, the above individuals are all billionaires from the computer industry – Microsoft, Apple and Google. Someone could research this and come up with a much longer list I suppose. I don’t get to be on that kind of list, but I watched an awful lot of TV, played a lot of videogames, and wasted time on computers when I was young. And of course there was all that Dungeons & Dragons and similar games. That stuff was supposed to be bad for you back then too. I remember writing programs in BASIC and playing the video game Artillery on a Commodore 4K Pet in middle school (grades 6-8). My video game addiction persisted until my late 20s, playing Doom in law school for endless hours. In between there were many quarters wasted on Space Invaders, Pac-Man, Missile Command, Galaxian, Defender, and the list goes on and on. For my 40th birthday I bought myself a PlayStation 3. Life has caught up to me and I rarely have time to use it, less than an hour a month. I even bought the new Grand Theft Auto – and now I’m worried because I don’t see what’s so great about it. Have I lost my connection to the world of video games?

Akst says kids average 3 hours a day of television – “way too much for any good student.” Ahem. I watched more. With HBO, I managed to watch movies like Stripes and Animal House 50 times each. There were cartoons, sitcoms, soap operas with my mom and sports with my dad. Despite all of this parental abuse, most people would say I did well in school.

Come to think of it, my brother and I drank loads of Coke and ate like crap too. Mom would make us “English Muffin Pizzas” – thick slices of Velveeta cheese on top of bacon and tomato on half a muffin. The tomato was good for us I guess. Once, when he was in college and I was in high school, the two of us went to Pizza Hut and split a large Pan Pizza filled with toppings, and we each had a pitcher of Coke. Heavens!

The quantity of these “bad things” isn’t what matters. Akst says parents matter and I agree with that. What matters is whether parents care about their kids. Our parents always supported us. They paid attention. They listened. They taught. They yelled too. If we had a problem (like that 62 I got one quarter in 9th grade Social Studies) they worked with us to figure out what was wrong and help us do better. They were far from perfect, but they tried. I’m not sure exactly how they did it, but they made sure we knew education was important, and that they expected us to do well. We knew we were going to college. It wasn’t a question.

Our father passed long ago, but our mother is still tremendously supportive. She is hard-wired to believe we are good kids and she keeps helping us, even now as we find ourselves helping her more. I’d even have to say siblings matter. My brother was a huge help when I was growing up. Sure we fought some, and it took me until after college to recognize how good of a brother he’s been, but he also helped in so many ways.

Getting back to computers, we have to get past the idea that computers are bad for kids. It might be what they do with computers. My brother and I both learned to program computers. That has proven to be quite valuable to both of us. Video games, despite their bad rap, help kids develop problem solving skills including persistence.

I have had a few clients in their late teens who are good with computers and web programming. One stands out in my mind. He has the skills to make $50/hour easily, and perhaps more, but he was determined to go to college anyway. The value of education had been instilled in him.

TV is a tough one. We try to limit our kids time with the TV too, although we’re not that great with it. I’d say it matters if they watch educational TV instead of junk, but I watched an awful lot of junk. I’m a bit ambivalent about it as a parent. Sometimes I think they watch too much. But I watched so much more as a kid. More important, we spend quality time with our kids. And not just us. We’re lucky to have three grandparents close by who spend time with them as well.

1 comment to Too Much Computer Time for Kids?

  • Anonymous

    Submitted 11/5/2010:
    Agreed on so many of your points, Mr. Redlich. The only issue I’d raise is, that if kids spend a lot of time on computers or watching tv, maybe they’re not getting enough exercise. I love that my daughter can click & drag with the best of them, but I worry about enough physical activity as well.

    By the way, I did vote for you, and I truly believe if there were more people who thought like you in public office, NYS would be a better place to live.