The BBC is reporting that a UK teachers union “is calling for urgent action over the impact of modern technology on children’s ability to learn” and that “some pupils were unable to concentrate or socialise properly” due to what they perceive as ‘over-use’ of digital technology.
It may not be that the teachers’ union is completely mistaken, however. They may be on to something but maybe just not what they think they’re onto.
To make sense of the confusion, you need to check out an elegant study completed by psychologists Robert Weis and Brittany Cerankosky who decided to test the psychological effects of giving young boys video game consoles.
They asked for families to take part who did not have a video-game system already in their home, had a parent interested in purchasing a system for their use, and where the kid had no history of developmental, behavioural, medical, or learning problems.
They ran a randomised controlled trial or RCT where 6 to 9-year-old boys were first given neuropsychological tests to measure their cognitive abilities (memory, concentration and problem-solving) and then randomly assigned to get a video games console.
The families in the control group were promised a console at the end of the study, by the way, so they didn’t think ‘oh sod it’ and go and buy one anyway.
So, we have half the kids with spanking brand new console, and, as part of the trial, the amount of time kids spent gaming and doing their school work was measured throughout, as was reporting of any behavioural problems. At the end of the study their academic progress was measured and their cognitive abilities were tested again.
The results were clear: kids who got video game consoles were worse off academically compared to their non-console-owning peers – their progress in reading and writing had suffered.
But this wasn’t due to an impact on their concentration, memory, problem-solving or behaviour – their neuropsychological and social performance was completely unaffected.
By looking at how much time the kids spent on the consoles, they found that reduced academic performance was due to the fact that kids in the console-owning families started spending less time doing their homework.
In other words, if your kids play a lot of computer games instead of doing homework they may well appear worse off, and from the teachers’ point-of-view, might seem a little slowed-down compared to their peers, but this is not due to cognitive changes.
Interestingly, teachers may not be in the best position to see this distinction very well because they tend, like the rest of us, to measure ability by performance in the tasks they set and not in comparison to neuropsychological test performance.
The solution is not to panic about technology as this same conclusion probably applies to anything that displaces homework (too many piano lessons will have the same effect) but good parental management of out-of-school time is clearly important.
Link to locked study on the effects of video games.