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June 01, 2012

Are video games bashing their brains?

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.


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My 10 yr old son must read for 45 minutes prior to 45 mins of play. Noncompliance results in unplugging and locking up the PS3. I'm not a big fan of Black Ops, but it is both a behavioral tool and reward, ironically,

It's not just video games. After the 3rd grade, my sons are watching more sports on t.v. and playing sports. I see their interest in reading and school work decreasing while the girls in their classes are performing better. The girls are not as interested in watching sports or video games.

Connie Matthiessen asks "Or do video games — in moderation — play a positive role, teaching kids important skills like strategic thinking, problem solving, and decision making?"

If video games really did accomplish these things, what sense would it make to allow them only in moderation? Just explain to the teacher the reason homework isn't done is because your sons were spending the evening working on their higher order skills instead of the mindless homework.

Seriously, do you need a study to validate the downward spiral you already witness? In a sense I agree with the child who admonishes you about reading too many studies. Your boys obviously understand they did not need a study to convince you to finally allow the video games in YOUR household, where YOU are the PARENT.

Why do any of your readers need even one study or the affirmation of other parents to justify taking the mindless time waster away and turning their CHILDREN back to more productive pursuits?

By the way, double or quadruple the time you think your kids spend on video games. What do you think they are doing over at their friend's homes, on the bus, and during lunch times?

You want them to learn strategic thinking, problem solving, and decision making? Try chess! Too hard, too boring, not "fun" they will say. Yes, exactly.... to learn these skills IS difficult, tedious, and requires disciplined thought. In contrast, high achievement in a video game requires countless hours of repetition, rapid button pushing, and a semi-comatose state of mind.

I have a five year old son we introduced Mario Brothers to. The video gaming quickly turned into an obsession which had my son incessantly asking to play "Mario". If I responded with, "Not now" or anything that deferred the game my son eventually would throw tantrums. These were tantrums that included him saying he didn't want a family, hated his parents and the like. My solution was to take it all away. It's worked like a charm and he very rarely requests video games now. I think total abstinence from the video games is the only solution and cannot take chances on this becoming an issue that will separate me from my son. Hope this helps.

My parents limited me and my brothers to five minutes of computer time per person per week during our school semesters(half an hour on holidays, and one whole hour was the ultimate trip. All that came with the restriction of having to pause and take a break after playing for half an hour) when I was their age. Back then, our games did not have so many save points, so this wasn't a trivial restriction). Me and my brothers would pool each of our five minutes together to obtain a grand total of fifteen minutes a week. In case we thought the limit on our time was negotiable, Mom bought a special timer that we would set (and she would check) before playing, and that would go off whenever we were just about to complete a level. Plead too much, and she would pull the plug. Oh, and she would sometimes get us to start the timer while the computer was still booting up, and we would stare at the screen, cursing whoever had designed Windows '95.

And as for television, we would get half an hour of screentime a day, forty-five minutes on weekends. One hour if our parents thought we deserved it. When we got an exercise machine in our home, my parents said I could watch as much as I want every day with just one rule: I had to be exercising if I wanted to watch television (and no slacking off or going slowly). Yeah, if you are smart, you can make television a test on your kids' physical endurance...

Looking back with the benefit of hindsight, it made me into a hopeless consumer of Star Wars books. We have the entire New Jedi Order Series, and two racks of National Geographic at home. I also found that I eventually grew out of watching crap on television (though I could never grow out of Kaijus and giant cosmic beings in silver spandexes).

I think I profited from these restrictions in the end. My only regret was that I didn't read more widely and seek out books by other famous authors (even if some of them might have been banned where I live).

Don't pull the plug on your kids. Just give them very little electronic entertainment without depriving them of it entirely, because depriving them completely of something automatically causes them to seek it out when they are older. It's kind of like a child's curiosity about the birds and the bees. If you don't satisfy it, he'll find out all about it when he becomes a daddy at the age of fourteen.

Oh, and I read Lord of the Rings when I was about twelve. It blew my mind.

Books rock, even if they are ebooks.

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