Connie Matthiessen, Associate Editor
Are video games bad for kids because they normalize violence and distract kids from reading, homework, and other pursuits? Or do video games — in moderation — play a positive role, teaching kids important skills like strategic thinking, problem solving, and decision making?
I've never been a fan of video games and I managed to keep my home free of them for years. My sons wore me down when one was in middle school, the other in high school. I relented because I wanted the kids to bring their friends home, and video games are a major teen-boy attraction.
But I'm no convert. I hate the beeps and crashes, the artificial graphics, the spooky avatars. I particularly hate the bleary, stupified expression kids get when they play, and it sends me 'round the bend when it's gorgeous outside and I find my boys slumped in a darkened room with all their attention focused on the churning screen.
Boys and video games
It's a struggle, but I've managed to enforce a no-screen rule on school nights. Still, I worry that gaming is affecting my boys' school performance. In the bigger picture, I wonder whether video games are responsible for the alarming lag in boys' academic achievement. In his 2010 book, Why Boys Fail, journalist Richard Whitmire documented this lag, pointing out that girls are outpacing boys in school — through college and beyond. The average graduating classes at a four-year college is now close to 60 percent female, for example, and more women than men are earning advanced degrees.
In his books, Whitmire explores the role of video games in the boy/girl achievement gap (some girls do play video games, of course, but not as obsessively or single-mindedly as boys do). Whitmire is no fan of gaming, but he doesn't believe it's responsible for the gender gap. The problem, he believes, is boys' overall disengagement from school — an issue with complex roots that he explores at length in his book.
Video games and academic achievement
Still, it nags at me — and I’m not alone. A recent study published in the journal Psychological Science found stark evidence of the erosive effect video games can have on learning. Researchers compared two groups of boys ages 6 to 9 over a four month period. Both groups were going to get video games, but one group had access to video games immediately while the others (the control group) had to wait four months. Researchers found that the boys who played video games had significantly lower reading and writing scores and greater teacher-reported learning problems, compared to the control group.
When I told my sons about this study, they reacted with scorn.
"You read too many studies, Mom," one told me.
"I bet I could find ten other studies that prove the opposite," the other said.
Do they protest too much? Both could be doing better academically, but are video games the issue? Both fit Whitmire's profile in terms of their disengagement from school. At the same time, one is an athlete, and his demanding sports schedule means he's often exhausted when he should be doing homework. The other loves to read and frequently spends more time reading books than doing his homework. In both cases, I’m glad that they have passions outside of school (and outside of video games!)
But based on this latest research, I wonder — yet again — if I should toss out the %$#@% thing. Is it too late? Am I, as my boys would say, hopelessly behind the times, tilting at consoles?
I'd love to hear how you think video games affect learning, and how you handle gaming at your house.