Monday, August 29, 2011

Video games make a lousy gift.

Because it is back-to-school time, it is interesting to think a bit about another drain on kids’ time—video games.  What role video games have on kids’ performance in school? 

There is a lot of correlational evidence suggesting that video games are bad for schoolwork.  That is, kids who play lots of video games tend to do more poorly in school than kids who do not play that often.

Correlational studies are the most obvious studies to do to address this question, because it is straightforward to get information about school performance about a group of children and then find out from their parents how often they play video games at home.  Of course, the problem with correlational studies is that there are many factors that could be causing the results that go beyond what was measured.  Maybe the kids who play the most video games at home have the least parental supervision, and so they don’t do well in school.  Maybe the kids who are struggling most in school are the ones who seek out video games as a way to escape the frustration of homework.

A nice study in the April, 2010 issue of Psychological Science by Robert Weis and Brittany Cerankosky tackles this issue head-on.  They found a sample of boys between the ages of 6 and 9 who did not yet own a video game system, but whose parents were planning to buy them one in the near future. 

They got information about reading, writing, and math performance in school about all the boys as well as information from parents and teachers about behavior at home and at school.  Two groups of boys were created.  The groups were set up so that their current level of school performance was about the same. 

One group of the boys was given a PS2 game system and three age-appropriate games.  The other group did not get a game system.  After four months, the researchers got information about current reading and math performance, behavior, and an assessment from the parents about how the kids were spending their time.

Reading and writing performance of the boys given the PS2 was significantly worse than that of the boys who did not get the game system.  There were no statistically reliable differences in math performance. 

Other statistical analysis found that the difference in reading performance could be explained by the amount of time that the boys spent playing video games each week.

Why was language performance hurt, but not math performance?  Between the ages of 6 and 9, there are many opportunities for kids to get extra practice with language.  Just having a conversation with parents can improve language use.  In addition, kids can sit at the dinner table and read a book.  Parents can spend some time reading to their children.  The video games cut into this unstructured reading time.  There aren’t as many opportunities to practice math outside of doing schoolwork directly, and so math performance was not hurt. 

What about behavior?  There was a tendency for the kids who got the video games to exhibit more behavior problems in school than those who did not get the games.  This difference was small, but it should be of some concern, because the boys in this study had only had the games for about 4 months when the follow-up measures were taken.  These initial differences could get larger over time.

What does this mean?

The problem here is probably not the video games themselves.  The problem is that video games are very enticing.  Kids can sit and play video games for many hours.  In that time, they engage in few real conversations with others, and so they end up with much less practice reading and using language. 

As a parent, I know how hard it is to resist buying a video game system for your kids.  Obviously, if there is no game system in the house, that will limit the amount of time that your kids play games.  If you do decide to buy a game system, then it is important to have strict limits on the amount of time that it gets played to leave enough time for the kinds of interactions that enhance learning.