In an increasingly technological world, computer literacy is vital. And most parents do not want their children to fall behind. However, some educators and parents have questioned the unbridled embrace of this technology. Just when should a child begin learning with computers? Do computers stifle imagination and creativity? And how do we protect children from potentially harmful websites?

There is more and more software for the very young. These products imitate early learning experiences, such as matching shapes and learning the alphabet, and some parents see this as a way for their children to get a competitive jump start on their peers.

Joe started his son, Alex, on the computer at nine months. "I thought of it as an introduction to a machine that is going to profoundly affect his life," he says.

Other parents point out, however, that even talented musicians often do not pick up instruments until the age of six or seven, and that the infinite flexibility of children and their sponge-like learning capability means that using a computer is a nonessential step in early child development.

"My son was more interested in baseball than computers when he was three," says Mary. "I'm sure he'll learn to use the computer when he reaches school-age, but I think it's more important to follow his instincts during the early years."

Letting your toddler take the lead with computers is probably the best course. If they seem to enjoy it, you might want to invest in some early learning software. While this on-screen learning may be no more educational than an old-fashioned game of crazy eights, it is a great opportunity to turn computer time into quality time by doing it together.

By the time children reach school-age however, the computer will probably be a regular part of their school day. Some elementary school teachers use the computer as a reward for finishing regular schoolwork or as a workstation within the classroom for particular assignments. Students can work independently or play learning games with other children. In the higher grades, computer labs are very popular with students required to participate in organized activities at a particular skill level.