RCT: video games can hamper reading and writing skills in young boys by displacing other activities

Not Exactly Rocket Science
By Ed Yong
Feb 23, 2010 8:30 PMNov 5, 2019 2:06 AM


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I grew up in the days of the SNES and the Sega Megadrive. Even then, furious debates would rage about the harm (or lack thereof) that video games would inflict on growing children. A few decades later, little has changed. The debate still rages, fuelled more by the wisdom of repugnance than by data. With little regard for any actual evidence, pundits like Baroness Susan Greenfield, former Director of the Royal Institution, claim that video games negatively "rewire" our brains, infantilising us, depriving us of our very identities and even instigating the financial crisis.

Of course, the fact that video games are irrationally vilified doesn't mean that they are automatically harmless. There's still a need for decent studies that assess their impact on behaviour. One such study has emerged from Denison University, where Robert Weis and Brittany Cerankosky have tested what happens when you give young boys, aged 6-9, a new video game system.

They found that after 4 months, boys who had received the games had lower reading and writing scores than expected, failing to improve to the same degree as their console-less peers. They also faced more academic problems at school. At first this might seem like support for the rewired brains of Greenfield's editorials, but the reality is much simpler - the games were displacing other after-school academic activities. While some children were finishing their homework or reading bedtime stories, those with games were mashing buttons.

There is much to like about Weis and Cerankosky's study. For a start, it is a randomised controlled trial (RCT), one of the most reliable ways of finding out if something is truly causing a specific effect. Indeed, it is the first such trial looking into the effects of video games on the academic abilities and behaviour of young boys.

The duo recruited 64 lads who didn't already have a video game system. Half of them - the experimental group - were randomly chosen to receive a Playstation 2 via their parents along with threeall-agesgames. The other half - the control group - remained without a console. The parents were told that the study was designed to examine the boys' development and that the video games were merely incentive for participation.

Four months later, Weis and Cerankosky caught up with the boys. They found that the budding gamers had significantly lower reading and writing scores than those who never received the PS2. In the intervening months, the control group became better at reading and writing, while the gamers stagnated or, if anything, became slightly worse. This didn't escape the notice of their teachers, who said that they were showing more problems at school in reading, writing and spelling.

On the plus side, the video games had no effect on the boys' mathematical skills, their attention spans, their ability to concentrate, or their ability to adapt to new problems. Nor did the gamers' parents report any problems with their behaviour.

Diaries kept by the boys' parents revealed that the negative aspects of video gaming were due to the fact that the kids with games spent a lot of time playing on them. The control group would occasionally get their hands on a joypad at a friend's house, but such opportunities only took up an average of 9 minutes a day. Instead, they spent around 32 minutes a day on after-school academic activities. By comparison, the boys who had their own games spent 40 minutes a day with them and only 18 minutes a day on after-school learning. After adjusting for these differences in work-play balance, the link between video games and reading or writing skills vanished.

This displacement explanation also explains why the boys' maths scores were unaffected - they simply don't have many maths-based leisure activities for video games to displace. Reading books is one thing but it's hard to imagine children rolling out the arithmetic worksheets for pleasure.

The differences in reading and writing ability between the two groups were too large to be overlooked. At that age, such skills are particularly important and problems can set children back from picking up more advanced abilities later on in their school careers. Weis and Cerankosky write, "Our findings suggest that video-game ownership may impair academic achievement for some boys in a manner that has real-world significance."

Such warnings may not be new but until now, they were all basedon "cross-sectional" studies, where researchers compare the abilities and video game use of children in a snapshot of time. These studies are never really that informative - a positive correlation could just as easily mean that children who don't apply themselves at school at more likely to receive games from their parents, or that struggling students are more likely to abandon homework in favour of their games. By doing a trial, Weis and Cerankosky have clarified the direction of cause and effect.

These results suggest that despite some people's inclination to fear new technology, video games aren't inherently harmful in themselves. Their danger lies in their ability to shift the balance between work and play. Vaughan Bell, a psychologist from King's College London and author of the superlative Mind Hacks blog, described the conclusion as "important". He says, "It fits nicely with the research showing that time watching TV, playing videos games, is associated with obesity because it reduces the amount of physical activity children do. Unfortunately, these sorts of studies rarely get the exposure they deserve and we get crap about games causing brain damage based on nothing but hot air."

There are, as always, still many unanswered questions. First and foremost, the study says nothing about the controversial topic of video game violence and its impact on children's behaviour, especially since the games that were offered merely contained "mild cartoon violence and comic mischief". There's mixed evidence from previous studies bout whether a link exists between violent games and aggressive thoughtsand behaviour. One study published last year showed that violent games delay people from helping others but others have revealed a beneficialside.

Either way, Weis and Cerankosky want to understand the long-term effects after four months, the impact on girls who play different types of games for different reasons, and whether the games could actually be affecting the children at a neurological level. Perhaps a more educational genre of video gaming could even help to boost the children's academic performance?

Reference: Weis, R., & Cerankosky, B. (2010). Effects of Video-Game Ownership on Young Boys' Academic and Behavioral Functioning: A Randomized, Controlled Study Psychological Science DOI: 10.1177/0956797610362670

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