MONDAY, June 7, 2004 (HealthDayNews) -- Toddlers who are already familiar with computers may be on the fast track to academic achievement, researchers report.
"Kids that had some access to a computer, either at home or at a family member's house they went to frequently, had higher estimated IQ scores and higher school readiness scores than kids that did not have access to a computer," said Melissa Atkins, a professor of pediatrics at the University of Ohio.
She and co-author Xiaoming Li published their findings in the June issue of Pediatrics.
According to Atkins, there's been a lot of debate within the child-development community on the merits of computer exposure among very young children.
"Some people were afraid that using computers interfered with the social interaction and social environment skills that kids need to know," she said, "whereas other people said that computers give kids a really fun and hands-on way of learning."
Dr. Sarah Shea is an associate professor of pediatrics at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Canada, and a board member of the Canadian Pediatric Society. She agreed that computers can be "good supports to learning," but added that electronic media such as television, video games and computers can be "isolating" for children.
"We know that the more time kids spend with electronic media, the less time they spend being physically active, playing with other kids, using creativity," she said.
In their study, Atkins and Li looked at whether early computer use provided toddlers with real intellectual benefit. They had 122 3- to 5-year-olds from poor, rural West Virginia families take a series of tests assessing their estimated IQ, school readiness (whether they understood key concepts), and visual and motor skills.
According to the researchers, children with exposure to computers, either in the family home or elsewhere, scored an average seven to 10 points higher on estimated IQ tests, and significantly higher on school readiness tests, compared with toddlers with no access to computers.
Access seemed to be key -- among children with access to computers, the amount of time actually spent using the PC appeared to have little impact on test scores. Computer access had no influence on children's visual or motor skills, the researchers added.
There was also a real difference between the effects of computer-based learning versus kids' exposure to video games, which appeared to have no effect whatsoever on either IQ or school readiness.
"I think a lot of computer software that's out there for kids tends to be somewhat educational in nature," Atkins said. "They're often games, but they are games that teach letters, colors, thing like that, whereas video games don't do any of that."
The findings may help parents decide whether or not to familiarize their youngsters with computers early on.
"I don't think that parents need to go out and buy computers," Atkins said, "but if they have a computer in the home, I think it's good evidence that it wouldn't hurt the child. It might even help if they purchased the right educational software."
Shea remains cautious, however. She noted that children in the study with access to computers tended to be the offspring of more highly educated parents, compared with children from homes without computers.
"Maternal education, in particular, has been clearly identified as a very significant predictor of child outcomes," Shea said.
And she worries that computers will join TVs and video games as another electronic alternative to human interaction for young children.
"I'm not anti-computer -- there's a computer in my home and when my children were younger I did buy some educational software for them," she said. "But my hope would be that if young kids are going to use computers that it be supervised, just like TV, restricted to a fixed period of time, and that computers don't go into kids' bedrooms. All of the things that we want parents to think about in terms of being media-savvy applies to computers, too."
The American Academy of Pediatrics offers guidelines on media use by children.