I was invited to participate in Intelligence Squared US, a nationally broadcast debate series where guests address hot issues of the day. "Video games will make us smarter" was the motion we debated, and I was on the opposing side. Below are notes on which I based my opening statement.
It is hard to mention the psychological dangers of technology without seeming seriously behind the times. After all, when TV came around, it was going to spell the end of civilization, too. Movies, radio, novels in the 18th century, the printing press in the Middle Ages—all had people making serious predictions about them. But the Internet and related technologies are different. They engage you more. You are not a passive recipient of the online video game experience; you are a potent actor. These technologies talk back to you. They reward and punish you. They are more immersive; more life-like, even, if you consider Virtual Reality. For that reason, they are easier to get hooked on, easier to think of as life itself rather than a pastime or a simple entertainment.
We have come a long way since the term “internet addiction” was coined somewhat prematurely nearly two decades ago. We now know that these technologies activate the same pathways in the brain involved in addiction to substances but also addiction to behaviors like gambling and sex. Next time you’re driving and you get a text message and feel this strong urge to read it despite knowing that it is a dangerous thing to do and despite knowing fully that the text most likely can wait, it is probably because pathways in the brain involved in immediate gratification and pleasure are being acted upon. We also know that among online video gamers, tolerance, or the need to play more to get the same type of effect, and withdrawal, or the anxious, restless feeling one has if one tries to cut back, can set in. We know that video games can take up more and more time and encroach on other crucial aspects of life—school, work, relationships, etc. We also know that the rates of co-occurring conditions, including social phobia and attention deficit disorder, appear to be quite high. This data led the publishers of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (or DSM, the “bible” of mental health diagnoses), to list Internet Gaming Disorder as a potential pathology worthy of further testing in its latest edition (2013).
And some of the red flags have to do with effects on intelligence or cognition. There are many components to cognition, and it is goes way beyond the ability to perform well on a specific task on a specific video game. I think we can all agree that attention, reading, writing and memory are important pillars of cognitive life and intelligence. When it comes to attention, there is, as I mentioned, a strong correlation between ADHD and internet gaming disorder. And there is a well documented rise in the number of stimulant prescriptions and ADHD cases that seems to correlate with the rise of these technologies. This is true in children and adolescents but also in adults: I see in my practice lawyers and professors who are supposed to be comfortable with complicated texts who tell me they are losing patience with complexity. And it might be because you can’t go from spending an average of less than a minute per webpage you visit to reading War and Peace.
When it comes to writing, many of us communicate online in a language that bears little resemblance to the one we learned. If you’re a linguist, you may find this very creative, like Shakespeare inventing a new sonnet form. But we can’t deny that relying on emoticons, bitmojis, omg’s, etc., can dumb down language and discourse and take away our ability to communicate with clarity and nuance, which is the purpose of language.
The same applies to reading. Studies show that a very small minority of readers actually read an entire webpage. In fact if you were reading online a transcript of this speech, there is a very good chance you would have logged off by now. Rather than read from top to bottom and right to left, eye tracking experiments suggest that we skim through the pages and take them in a giant “F pattern” superimposed on the page—we scan a horizontal band at the top of the page, scan the left side, then scan a second horizontal band. Again, a shift in reading and in our cognitive life that is not consistent with deep immersion in knowledge.
And then there’s the effect on memory. My students ask all the time why they need to memorize anything anymore when all information is only a click a way and we are never without a device that will allow us to immediately access it. Indeed, much of education is not about storing information in our internal library, as much as it is about learning how to navigate Google searches. It seems like we have stopped exercising our memory muscles, and that may turn out not to be such an intelligent thing to have done.
So, I invite you to take a step back and look at cognition and intelligence in their large, rich definitions, rather than focus on small individual studies in specific video games that may have shown a tiny improvements on a narrow aspect of cognition. Those studies are simply too small, too short-term, too non-representative of the humanity now online, and it would be a mistake to make too much of them and to forget the large amount of data pointing to adverse psychological effects related to video games. I also invite you to look at the opportunity cost and ask yourselves what activities are we not engaging in as we spend more and more time gaming? Ask yourselves whether those activities are not also crucial to developing a well rounded, grounded human being with an intelligent mind? If you do so, I believe you will come to similar conclusions as we did, and you will vote NO on the motion.