The day video games ate my school child

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.

Due to evidence reviewed by neuroscientist Kathryn Mills in a recent paper (pdf) we know that we’ve really got no reason to worry about technology having an adverse effects on kids’ brains.

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.

12 thoughts on “The day video games ate my school child”

  1. Also the findings that taking notes on the laptop negatively affects test scores? I have not read the study, just the abstract and media coverage.

    While it’s true the media hype has been ridiculous, as the study points out use of gadgets does count as multitasking and we’re very simply spending ridiculous amounts of time clicking around instead of practicing patience and concentration by being engrossed in long works of fiction or spending time out in nature.

  2. A few points:

    1. The teachers Union’s concern was with overuse of digital technology, not specifically with video game use.
    2. A lot of internet use involves multitasking, I don’t know of any scientists who are arguing that all this multitasking is good for cognitive development.
    3. This overuse of digital technology is contributing to kids not getting enough sleep, and again the the science is clear that lack of sleep is not good for cognitive ability.
    4. Kids, on average, still spend way more time watching videos and TV than they do playing video games or surfing the net. And the cognitive effects of watching videos are not good.

    “Just 9 minutes of viewing a fast-paced television cartoon had immediate negative effects on 4-year-olds’ executive function. Parents should be aware that fast-paced television shows could at least temporarily impair young children’s executive function.”

    “Results: Performance varied according to experimental group and age. In particular, we found that children’s orienting networks and error rates can be affected by a very short exposure to television. Conclusion: Just 3.5 min of watching television can have a differential effect on the viewer depending on the pacing of the film editing. These findings highlight the potential of experimentally manipulating television exposure in children and emphasize the need for more research in this previously under-explored topic.”

    “Middle-class 6-year-olds matched for sex, age, pretest WPPSI IQ, and TV-viewing time were blindly assigned to a restricted TV-viewing group or an unrestricted group. Restricted parents halved subjects’ previous TV-viewing rates and interacted 20 min./day with subjects for a 6-week period. Unrestricted TV parents provided similar interactions but did not limit viewing. Results tentatively suggest that TV restriction enhanced Performance IQ, reading time, and reflective Matching Familiar Figures scores.”'_TV-viewing_on_leisure_time_use_IQ_change_and_cognitive_style

    “Watching too much television can change the structure of a child’s brain in a damaging way, according to a new study. Researchers found that the more time a child spent viewing TV, the more profound the brain alterations appeared to be. The Japanese study looked at 276 children aged between five and 18, who watched between zero and four hours TV per day, with the average being about two hours. MRI brain scans showed children who spent the most hours in front of the box had greater amounts of grey matter in regions around the frontopolar cortex – the area at the front of the frontal lobe. But this increased volume was a negative thing as it was linked with lower verbal intelligence, said the authors, from Tohoku University in the city of Sendai. They suggested grey matter could be compared to body weight and said these brain areas need to be pruned during childhood in order to operate efficiently. ‘These areas show developmental cortical thinning during development, and children with superior IQs show the most vigorous cortical thinning in this area,’ the team wrote.”


  3. Of course, there’s another question: should kids of 6-9 be doing homework at all? Is there any research on that?

    1. There is a lot of evidence that for kids to learn to read well (and thus do well in school), it is pretty much essential for them to read for pleasure outside of school since most schools put very little time aside for reading for fun (if any).

      “Children’s interest in reading has more impact on their academic performance than their socio-economic group, research suggests.”

      “…this massive study showed that the difference between being raised in a bookless home compared to being raised in a home with a 500-book library has as great an effect on the level of education a child will attain as having parents who are barely literate (3 years of education) compared to having parents who have a university education (15 or 16 years of education)…”

      “Reading books is the only out-of-school activity for 16-year-olds that is linked to getting a managerial or professional job in later life, says an Oxford study.”

      Especially for younger kids, scientists are starting to look at the importance of unstructured play:

      “The Top 5 Benefits of Play”

      “The Case for Play – How a handful of researchers are trying to save childhood.”

      “The Serious Need for Play – Free, imaginative play is crucial for normal social, emotional and cognitive development. It makes us better adjusted, smarter and less stressed”

      Unfortunately most play has been usurped by digital technology:

       “A shocking study found that 60 per cent of youngsters would rather watch television or play computer games than venture outdoors.  A third of children aged between six and 15 have never climbed a tree, a quarter have never rolled down a hill and almost half have never made a daisy chain, it found.  Researchers discovered that one in ten children cannot ride a bicycle and a third have no idea how to play hopscotch or build a den.”

      What happens outside school, is in many ways much more important than what happens at school.


      1. I have not read it but many of my colleagues refer to the book Last Child in the Woods as a resource and reportedly has many references to current studies.

  4. Hey Mind Hacks, thanks for approving my comments! More than once, at other blogs, my comments have not been approved when I disagree with the blogger (especially anything critical of well loved media).

  5. The conclusion of the study might be right, but there is a problem: you’d expect kids to be pretty excited about the new games when they first get them. Arguably, they’d habituate to the new toy and/or learn how to better regulate their time.

  6. Someone mentioned earlier up in the comments about kids and homework. One of my children in Kindergarten had an amazing amount of homework this year. Is this a trend in Kindergarten now – I don’t ever remember spelling tests and take home homework in K. Mostly curious.

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