Steve Livingston

Steve Livingston

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All play and no work makes Jack a dull boy

Posted Mar 15, 2010

Much of the hullabaloo over video-games and children has focused on age-inappropriate content -- for example, intense violence and gore, sexual innuendo and partial nudity, and foul language. (I will address the issue of video-game violence and desensitization in an upcoming column.) But there are more subtle, and perhaps even more powerful, dangers -- even for games with no objectionable content. A new study by Weis and Cerankosky, to be published in a forthcoming issue of the journal Psychological Science, suggests that video-game ownership may negatively impact some aspects of school performance.

Full disclosure: I have been a gamer for a very long time, since an Intellivision console first showed up in our home in the early 1980s. My older brother and I whiled away many happy hours -- me on Astrosmash and Burgertime, he on Advanced Dungeons & Dragons and Utopia. (If I recall correctly, the console's innards eventually melted after one too many gaming marathons.) We used to visit our local arcades regularly, and even today bond over our shared love of video games. Our parents must have at times resembled those from the famous Far Side cartoon. Yet all of us are realists, and know that the hundreds (thousands?) of hours we've put into games must have come at some cost.

All of us have a finite amount of free time (for children, let's define this as time outside of school), and the way we spend free time tends to be zero-sum -- that is, time spent on one activity consumes time that could be spent on another activity. If we think about the important activities that children do with their free time, including play, sleep, chores, and homework, it seems clear that when a new preoccupation emerges, something else has to give. For many children, that ‘something' is the least enjoyable activity choice, and for many children, that means homework. All else being equal, the more time spent with Mario, the less time spent with multiplication tables. Therefore, we could expect declining academic performance to stem from displacement of school-related activities.

This logic seems pretty sound, but unfortunately most of the research on the subject has not used methodology appropriate for indicating causal linkages. For example, when you study children who already have video game systems, it is hard to conclude that video games per se are causing effects on school performance -- whether positive or negative. For one thing, it is possible that the causation works the other way. If we see that increased video game playing is associated with higher school performance, it could just be that those kids who already excel at school need less time to do their homework and have more time to spend on video games; if we see that increased video game playing is associated with decreased school performance, it could just be that those kids who have trouble with their homework spend time on more pleasurable activities like video games. Or there may be some extraneous but unexamined variable to blame: perhaps absentee parenting influences lack of regular time enforcement on both game playing and homework.

In the new study, researchers used a randomized, controlled experiment, focusing on boys aged 6-9 with no reported history of physical, behavioural, or other developmental problems. At the beginning of the study none of the participant families owned a video-game console, but all had at least one parent who had expressed interest in purchasing one for child use. The researchers promised each participant family a Sony Playstation II (PS2) video game console and 3 game titles, rated by the ESRB as suitable for "Everyone" (though all included mild comic violence/mischief).

At the beginning of the study, the same measures -- an intelligence test, an academic functioning test, and teacher and parent ratings of the boys' behavior -- were administered to all participants. Following this baseline administration, the key manipulation (randomly assigned) in this study was introduced: some, in the experimental condition, received the PS2 console immediately; the rest, in the control condition, received it 4 months later. Parents were asked to report their sons' afterschool activities using a "time diary", which allowed calculations of average time spent on academic activities (e.g., reading, extra lessons, homework) and on video games. There were no differences between the control and experimental groups at baseline, which suggests that the randomization process was successful.

At the follow-up assessment, the same measures were readministered. Scores for boys in the experimental condition dropped on measures of reading and written language. Mediation analyses (which allow for estimation of how much an effect is due to an intervening variable) showed that duration of game play explained a significant amount of this drop in scores. There was also a trend toward teacher ratings of increased learning problems (e.g., difficulty acquiring language skills) in the experimental condition.

Is it time to toss out your Playstations and Xboxes? Well, probably not. First, although science media rarely reminds its audiences of this fact, single studies are very rarely conclusive. However, the activity displacement effect demonstrated in this study is consistent with findings from other researchers (e.g., Cummings & Vandewater, 2007). The fact that video games also tend to have fast-paced action and provide immediate rewards also puts them at odds with the infrequent reinforcement schedules and frequent tedium found in the typical public classroom. This study also included only boys, and the authors clearly state that this sample was deliberately chosen to "increase the effectiveness of the experimental manipulation" (p. 2) -- in other words, to stack the deck in favour of showing negative effects. A recent survey had boys aged 8-18 reporting daily video gaming far more than girls of the same age range (by an approximately 3:1 ratio), and girls reporting not playing at all far more than boys (by an approximately 7:1 ratio; Gentile, 2009).

One could mount a compelling case that any distracting activity would have a similar effect, and thus a baseball bat and glove is just as ‘dangerous' as a video game where schooling is concerned. But video games are somewhat different in that they do not consume very much physical energy: an average child could easily sink 6 hours of continuous play into an engaging video game if left uninterrupted; Little Leaguers who can play baseball for this long without any breaks are rare indeed -- and probably in far better physical shape than most of us will ever be! Sometimes game rewards are even linked to how often you play. For example, in the new military shooter Battlefield: Bad Company 2, rewards are given when total online playtime exceeds 24, 48, and 120 hours.

The key for parents who choose to buy a game console (or who have a home computer with game software) is activity monitoring and setting clear time limits on play. Like television programs, video games are used by many parents simply as a convenient ‘electronic babysitter'. It is best for parents to learn about the specific features of their video game consoles, as some can be used quite effectively for limiting playtime. For example, on the Xbox 360 there is a "Family Timer" that can be set by caregivers, password-protected, and overridden if necessary (e.g., as a treat for good behaviour, during long breaks from school, etc.). Many games also have their own time counter - often found somewhere in the game's pause menu -- that shows the total time a player has spent with the game. Occasionally checking these statistics is probably worth the minimal effort required. Keeping game systems in the main family area (rather than in a child's room) also helps you to monitor content and play duration, and may even encourage you to play alongside your kids.

And if all else fails, you could just go old-school and hide the AC adapter.  Unless you've got a little MacGyver at home, or your child is independently wealthy and can buy a spare, problem solved. Just don't be surprised when they start visiting their friends' houses after school to "do homework".


Cummings, H.M., & Vandewater, E.A. (2007). Relation of adolescent video game play to time spent in other activities. Archives of Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine, 161, 684-689.

Gentile, D.A. (2009). Pathological video-game use among youths ages 8 to 18: A national study. Psychological Science, 20(5), 594-602.

Weis, R. & Cerakosky, B . C. (in press). Effects of video-game ownership on young boys' academic and behavioral functioning. Psychological Science. [doi:10.1177/0956797610362670]



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