Segan: Get Your Kids Computers as Early as Possible

My baby is turning 1. It's time to get her a laptop.

This is pretty self-evident to me, but not to the American Academy of Pediatrics, which recommends "no screen time" for children under 2 and at most 1 or 2 hours daily for kids.

You see, screens are evil. Screens are pernicious, soul-destroying things that, if left unchecked, will turn our daughters into half-blind, obese little monkeys who obsessively IM sexual predators while watching reruns of "My Super Sweet 16." At age 6.


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Yes, we have a couch-potato problem in our country. But in today's America, you have to be fluent in the modern media and technology stream. You have to consume it — and you have to rule it.

I speak tech pretty well, having been raised on PCs since I was 8. But there's a certain sort of fluency you get with any language, with any task, if you start learning it practically from the moment you're born.

For kids learning to navigate 21st-century society, computers and media are just as important as balls, books, and baby dolls.

A TV is a thing where you pick your programs from a list. Commercials are something to fast-forward through. Tech is a tool. Media is to be listened to and questioned.

At least, that's what I want my daughter to learn.

Yes, all of these devices have "off" buttons — and you're supposed to use them. Frequently.

But to pretend the devices don't exist is to end up like the son of a friend of mine: Because the family doesn't have a TV, he's absolutely riveted when we all go out together and he sees one playing in a restaurant.

My daughter, on the other hand, who knows TV generally as a purveyor of incomprehensibly dull grown-up programs, looks up, sniffs and dismisses it as part of the landscape.

One of my daughter's toddler friends already has a laptop — his parents' cast-off — running Edubuntu, a Linux-based OS made for kids.

Edubuntu comes with kiddie educational applications, including one that mimics the legendary Kid Pix, a truly awesome children's drawing program that dates back to the 1990s. (Kid Pix, I'm happy to say, is still going strong; you can buy the new version for $25 for Windows or Mac machines.)

The little guy just bangs on keys to make sounds, but he'll grow into it.

His parents, meanwhile, are getting new life out of their old laptop, because it runs Firefox and OpenOffice — and runs them quite competently.

My budget is tight (we don't get paid extra for these columns), so I went with a $25 solution.

No, not one of those hideous Fisher-Price fake laptops: the Apple eMate, a little kids' laptop from the mid-1990s that's nearly indestructible and runs the Newton OS.

There are plenty available on eBay. It runs forever on batteries. And if it gets smashed, you aren't out big bucks.

It turns out there's still a community of Newton programmers out there, and some of them are interested in programming little-kid software for the platform. If you like, you can check them out at

I'm excited about developing a custom software solution, even if it's one that just makes fake animal noises when my daughter pounds on the keyboard.

You might notice a theme here: Kids should use the same tech stuff that grown-ups use, with age-appropriate restrictions.

Obviously, little kids shouldn't roam the Internet unfettered. I'm all for parental-control software, age-appropriate Web filters and all the stuff that keeps kids from playing in virtual traffic.

But they shouldn't freely roam the streets of New York City, either. I take my little girl out into the streets of New York daily, carrying her in my arms. By the same token, she should use actual tech and occasionally be exposed to actual media.

Obviously, things are going to get tougher when my girl faces peer pressure, kid-focused marketing and all the social and corporate rapaciousness of our consumer society.

We're hoping that early inoculation can, to some tiny extent, help alleviate the modern media disease. If media and technology are something you control, they're less likely to control you.

If she wants a new PC after age 8, though, she's going to have to build it herself.

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