Move over television.
The idiot box's much younger counterpart — the Internet-equipped home computer — also plays a major role in isolating kids from "real life" and delaying their development, early education experts say.
"There's so many concerns about children's attention spans, their creativity," says Rebecca Tree, director of Roots and Wings Child Development, a Medford preschool program.
While too much TV is an age-old concern, it's only within the past decade — roughly coinciding with widespread use of home computers and the Internet by children — that Tree has noticed major changes in kids' ability to interact with each other, form relationships and even have fun.
Emphasis on "educational" computer games that define particular tasks for children has led to kids who struggle with "unscripted" play, Tree says.
"It's like they've never seen a crayon before," Tree says. "They've never seen paint before; they've never seen Play-Doh before."
Computer-based media add another element to the concept of "screen time," Tree says. It's a common American notion that kids are forgoing outdoor activities for their home's many screens, but the phenomenon isn't taking place just in the United States.
Among children ages 1 through 12 in 16 countries, three hours of TV viewing is the daily average, in addition to an hour and 15 minutes of DVDs or videos, an hour of audio media, an hour of video gaming and almost 40 minutes using a computer, says Tree, who got her statistics from the winter issue of American Journal of Play.
"These are virtual experiences that the children are having," Tree says. "I don't think that kids are getting the real-life experiences that kids need."
To ground children in the physical world, many experts advise against screen exposure before age 5, Tree says. Some educators in Europe recommend 8 as the appropriate "screen age," Tree says, adding "that's pretty extreme."
Many parents are transferring their own insecurities about their personal Internet and computer illiteracy to their children, failing to consider that today's kids don't need extra computer exposure at home, Tree says.
The prevalence of computers and the Internet in schools does plenty to instruct kids, Tree adds. Despite classroom introduction to computers as early as preschool, she says, "you don't need 'em until you're in high school."
Her oldest son's high-school research projects presented Karen Baumgarten with the first adequate argument for subscribing to the Internet several years ago. A longtime proponent of limiting hours in front of the TV, Baumgarten, 51, says she believed the Internet would isolate family members and erode their relationships.
"Had they been allowed, (they) would have spent several hours at a stretch," Baumgarten says of her four sons' fondness for the Internet.
The Medford family set a house rule of no more than an hour of daily Internet use, with exceptions for homework. They established the computer in one of the home's common areas, but Baumgarten still wasn't convinced that filters and close supervision would safeguard her sons from stumbling across offensive Web sites.
"One of my concerns was that my children not fall prey to pornography," she says.
So Baumgarten started confiscating the Internet cable every time she left the boys at home alone and every night at bedtime. While her sons occasionally protested time limits, they didn't lobby for a permanent Internet connection.
"The boys will hand it to me sometimes, too," Baumgarten says.
"That's not really such a big deal," says 18-year-old Jonathan Baumgarten, a senior at Cascade Christian High School in Medford. "That's just kind of common sense in my opinion."
Jitka Wangle's family doesn't have rigid rules regarding Internet use, but it hasn't led to too much screen exposure. The absence of TV in her home is one factor, Wangle says. With six people in the family, the computer's popularity makes sure no one person gets overexposure, she says.
"We kind of have to take turns and wait," says Wangle. "It kind of naturally regulates the screen time for the kids."
The Internet isn't necessary just for her kids' homework assignments. It's the default DVD player, radio and the means by which Wangle keeps in touch with her parents, who live in the Czech Republic. The Internet's global reach also allows Wangle to keep the Czech language alive in her Central Point home.
Wangle downloads fairy tales and songs in her native tongue for her children to enjoy. The Internet, she says, helps the three older kids stay connected to the country they first called home.
"I think it's good for them to have access to it."
Reach reporter Sarah Lemon at 776-4487, or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.