Thoughts about very little kids and computers

When my mom was in college in the 80’s (and I was somewhere around age 6 or 7), she managed to often tote me around with her to her computing lab, which was full of terminals with orange LED displays. and I taught myself BASIC on one of these. It was not only an invaluable experience (since I’ve always felt very comfortable and capable on computers), but as a woman in her early 40s now who makes her living programming, I esteem it as one of the most formative.

So, of course, as my three-year-old daughter is growing in the way she interacts with the world, I am both very cautious and optimistic about how to help her form a positive relationship with computing. It’s definitely a different world than I grew up in. My mother never put restrictions on how much time we spent on the computer when I was a kid, and I know that without the hours and hours I spent painstaking copying hexadecimal programs printed in Compute’s Gazette, or the summer I saved all my babysitting money to buy a Commodore 128, I wouldn’t be who I am today. However, with the realities of the manipulative nature of social networks and more and more, apps in general (especially those built for children), I feel a bit flummoxed as to how to proceed wisely.

Presently, my daughter does have her own iPad mini, but we try to save her use of it for trips and emergencies. We’ve just found that letting her have daily access to it is too damaging overall to her attitude and attention span.

I’m also thinking ahead about at what point she could be interested and want to use computers. For instance, at our local library, there is software installed for preliterate, pre-school age, in which they both use they keyboard (to identify letters and start learning to type), and they also learn to use the mouse. This seems very positive, particularly since there is some (perhaps illusory?) intended function of teaching written language.

I know this is an incredibly broad and complex topic, but I would love to hear more about how other families with geeky parents have found positive or productive solutions to introducing children to computers.


I am subscribing to this topic. Our kids are 13 and 8, but we are by no means getting this right as of yet. Would love to hear what other parents do - so thank you for the question/thread!


Disclaimer: not a parent, so I don’t know what kids are prone to eat, what age they stop doing that, etc.

Something like the Turing Tumble seems like a good way to learn logic, sequential events, etc. and from what I gather could be enjoyed without reading.
This and the others are cool things I’ve run across that I wish I’d had when I was a kid.


These are pretty cool! Thanks for sharing. I’ve seen the Osmo in person at a few stores and been curious. I like that most of these include a physical component and therefore are theoretically less prone to the negative effects of passive screen time.

I think the part of this issue that makes it so complex for me, is that there are a lot of differing expert opinions right now about kids and computing, and the evidence itself does not (to me) seem conclusive. Ironically, Silicon Valley parents seem to be swinging the pendulum far toward the side of zero screen time, while at the same time, it’s hard to imagine that Tanmay Bakshi, a 12 year old IBM Watson AI programmer, who talks about learning to program when he was 5, was limited to computer access that what the AAP considers acceptable for children.

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We’re in the middle of this too with 9 year old and 5 year old. We make a distinction between “consumption” and “production.” 20 min a day for games and other entertainment. No limits on production, which to date has included:

  • making videos of Star Wars figures then using hasbro app to add special effects (they can do this for hours sometimes)
  • making LEGO stop motion videos
  • looking up pictures on safari to draw from

No computer coding interest yet but I would add that to the production category.

No real conclusions to draw yet—they both would love to spend more time playing games but also seem still capable of playing in the real world and using their imaginations.


I can’t remember if I started with LOGO turtles at the Boston Children’s Museum or Applesoft Basic on my dad’s A2+…but in either case, I was about ten or eleven when I started coding in some form. But I had been primed for it with mathematical and problem-solving toys like cuisenaire rods and lots of Lego. I remember that one of the early programs I wrote with my dad was a simulation of the Massachusetts Megabucks lottery drawing - we left it running on the Apple ][+ overnight and in the morning we still hadn’t picked a winner…

I would think that rather than focus on specific apps, languages etc., one would want to think about what problems and questions the computer (ios devices included) can solve.

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I have two young ones (3 and 6). Initially, we allowed them to use phones and iPads but my daughter was obsessed by age 4. It was the first thing she wanted when she got up at weekends.

We slowly weaned them off and now they never touch any screens. At weekends we allow them to spend a couple of hours playing Xbox games like the Pixar adventures, but they’ve now completely forgotten about tablets and phones.

The results have been great, they now spend almost all their time painting, playing piano, playing together with toys and playing board games with me and my wife. My daughter knows Logic Pro but just associates it with her piano. I will buy her a point and shoot camera sometime and teach her how to edit photos for sure.

We have relatives who allowed both their daughters access to unlimited iPad and they both now need glasses and suffer terrible anxiety when they cannot play, I do not want this for my kids. Recent research claims that there is a direct link between bad eyesight and screen use (source:, and another academic paper claims that these devices bring on depression (while traditional video games on TVs do not) (source:

We’ll be carefully considering any benefits in the future but it’s unlikely we’ll do the same as other parents and allow them access to a device until they’re much older.


Want to bet it was not LED but a Plasma display and part of the PLATO system? :slight_smile: You might like the book “The Friendly Orange Glow” . As to the kids and computers, I have no clue. Sheep don’t type and the only time my “kids” interact with my computers is when they step on or press buttons on the screen of the LambTracker handheld and it’s usually not a good thing.

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What an interesting topic, especially around people who had their lives shaped by technology. We have a 2 and 3 year old and the iPad helps ton with supplemental learning. With things like ABC mouse and Kahn academy kids among others, our kids are dropping knowledge on us that we have never intentionally taught them.

We also recognize the addictive nature of technology so we limit the time and just deal with the 5 minute tantrum that happens only occasionally.


I’m not a parent, but if I were I think I would feel exactly as you do. I also attribute early access to computers as a net positive for my career and life and at the same time, realize that the computers I grew up playing with are worlds away from the dopamine dealers many apps have become today. To quote Michael Freed:

What none of these parents understand is that their children’s and teens’ destructive obsession with technology is the predictable consequence of a virtually unrecognized merger between the tech industry and psychology. This alliance pairs the consumer tech industry’s immense wealth with the most sophisticated psychological research, making it possible to develop social media, video games, and phones with drug-like power to seduce young users.

My challenge as a teacher is to avail myself and my students with the wonders and creative possibilities of technology, while at the same time recognizing that the devices we use to create come with a ton of perverse incentives to distract, mesmerize, and entertain, scare, and numb. As a hypothetical parent, I would want a machine that felt unrestricted and capable of assisting my child with their learning and creativity while fiercely protecting their attention at the same time.


Want to bet it was not LED but a Plasma display and part of the PLATO system?

It probably was! Since I haven’t seen one of these things in decades, I’m interpreting my 8-year-old experience through the eyes of present day familiarity. :wink:

I feel like most of my other parenting circles tend toward the wholistic/organic/crunchy/Montessori crowd, which I do have a lot in common with ideologically, just not the inherent skepticism of technology. It makes it difficult to discuss this issue with them. But clearly many of us geeks have managed to reproduce and we care just as much about the details of raising well-equipped and empathetic humans.

Just curious, what daily time limit range for iPad use do you find works well in your house?

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Yup. this has been front in my mind too. We have a 10-month old and she’s already transfixed by my Apple Watch and is very interested each time we use our phones. Currently, the philosophy is no screens, at least until she’s 2, and probably not until 3. While I have no sources to cite, I’m thinking there’s enough smoke around the theory that all these screens and lights are just no good for a developing mind that I’ll assume there’s fire too. I take it a step farther and also have never used these crazy light and sound toys that are out there. Pretty much anything that requires a battery isn’t welcome as a pass-time for my daughter at this age. I don’t need anything that’ll contribute to normalizing the kind of A.D.D. I see in everyone who obsessively lives the FOMO life.

That said, I’m well aware that’s not the world we live in. I’m going to see what happens when she enters day care and what sorts of things they have there and the effect it seems to have. My going theory, even though it might be naive, is to work at associating the use of any gadget to a real, desired outcome (as in the use of Logic for music mentioned above). If it’s a school thing, that’s what it’s used for. If it’s entertainment, then it’s about teaching the difference between leisure time and other activities and limiting based on that. What I don’t want is for her thinking to ever be that such devices are default time-fillers… like there’s nothing else of worth to be doing. I hope she spends as much if not more time out in the garden with us as she does on YouTube.

Time will tell.


Exactly. I’ve personally seen this first-hand through my occupation as an interface developer, wherein early strategies were simply about usability and functionality, while current enterprise-level UX design is heavily focused on “user engagement” and data-driven design which sounds very nice, but simply means keeping how long you can you keep people’s eyes glued to your app the ultimate objective and bottom line. It’s icky.

Along this line of thinking of how to reorient technology’s purpose and best use, I’ve really been enjoying Cal Newport’s book Digital Minimalism, whose central premise is to start with your personal goals and then be strategic about the best specific technologies to achieve them rather than to start off with the assumption that more technology always equals better.

But I’m not sure how this applies to children. Children need open-ended environments that encourage them to try things, to fail, and to figure things out. They need to be able to play. In one famous experiment:

In 1999, [Dr. Sugata] Mitra and his colleagues dug a hole in a wall bordering an urban slum in New Delhi, installed an Internet-connected PC and left it there. What they saw was kids playing around with the computer, and in the process learning how to use it, how to go online, and teaching each other

The children, given unlimited access to computers, not only taught themselves how to use the computers, taught themselves English, and much more than that.


This is a digression, but I thought it might give a Friday smile to the forum. I mentioned earlier that my 10-month-old daughter is fascinated by my Apple Watch. Well, in a strangely amusing technological confluence of randomness, she often triggers the Drafts complication on my watch unbeknownst to me, which results in my going into Drafts on the iPhone, having it look like this:

Ain’t technology grand? :crazy_face:


So cute. Isn’t that part of the appeal/motivation of introducing our children to technology? It’s like, yeah, I get it! This stuff is cool! It’s just really fun watching this little person be fascinated and learn to interact with the same thing that you are fascinated with.

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I just don’t want to let her run amok like I did. When I think of the hours, weeks, MONTHS lost to technology and diddling about it’s sorta scary. I’m thankful I at least got a few decades in before I fell down the rabbit hole to have a life that didn’t include this stuff to be honest. There is a dark side. But the light side is soooooo cool when it’s used right.

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I’m not a parent… But if my own experience with computers can give any guidance, that might be don’t worry too much with kids using electronics.

My parents knew basically nothing about computers and the internet, and bought our first family computer when I was in the fifth grade, only after they could bear no more my continuous begging. They tried but failed to limit my screen time — I learned to sneak into the study room when they went out together, and put the mouse and power cord back to exactly the same position before they returned home. As a teenager, I went to a boarding school, and had bought countless gadgets (iPods, gaming consoles, and even wearables (RIP Jawbone)) with whatever I saved from lunch budgets. The school didn’t allow electronics (boring Chinese test-prepping style, you know), but I managed to steal some time for music on the balcony of the dorm with the door locked, or to browse the web at 1 am with the quilt over my head, beaming the cellular connection of a $50 Android phone to an iPod touch, the janitor stepping outside, flashlight on his hand.

But hey, I grew up to a physically and psychologically healthy, nerdy adult. Have I done harm to my eyes? A little, maybe. Have I seen uncomfortable things on the internet? From time to time. But all those experiences ended up incorporated into my world view of, and skills in, the virtual world. Parents can’t protect kids from all downsides of the internet and electronics, just like they can’t protect kids from all germs. But as long as the problems aren’t traumatic or fatal, let them be. Who learned to walk without getting hurt?


I’m following this thread too, as I have a 10 month old who is also obsessed with my Watch and scrolling through the screen on my iPhone when she can get hold of it.


Generally about 30 minutes during weekdays after some homeschooling (they think it’s a treat even though they’re just learning more lol). Maybe up to 60 minutes on the weekend split between Disney Jr. and education. Some days they don’t even notice its existence.

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