If you are a regular reader of this column or if you happen to know me, you won’t believe what I’m about to tell you. You won’t be surprised that in my home I don’t have cable or satellite television, and I haven’t watched a television series in almost 20 years. I don’t text, I don’t play video games, and I rarely recreationally surf the web or use YouTube. I write letters on paper and send them in the US Mail and my children grew up with limited exposure to the television and limited computer use.
I don’t inherently dislike the computer or television. In fact, I couldn’t do my job as efficiently without the computer and my family enjoys a DVD together several times a week. But I know the computer, telephone, or television can be distracting from more important skills (like reading) and at the very least, they can be a waste of time. I went back and counted articles I’ve written about computer use and media and there has been about one each year.
For the most part, I’ve always suggested that children limit their exposure to television, the Internet, and computer games – especially if they have a habit of substituting social interaction or reading for computers. The data is fairly clear that children who spend more time reading, playing, and interacting with others, do better on cognitive tasks than children who don’t. I can tell within 10 minutes during an assessment with a child whether or not he watches a lot of television. The effects are clear.
Yet some research studies in the past six or seven years have shown that playing action computer games can actually assist in perceptual enhancement.* In these studies, subjects played action games three or more hours each week and their perceptual skills in other areas increased. This is big news because most studies involving games (video games as well as games like Sudoku, crossword puzzles, and chess) show that playing the game increases one’s ability in that game, but these skills don’t transfer to other activities. In other words, playing chess doesn’t make you smarter. It just makes you a better chess player.
But these action game studies show something quite different. In English, these studies tell us that people who play action video games have better skills in quickly picking up details in their visual field. This is exactly the kind of skill you need, for example, to be a good automobile driver. You have to be able to process a lot of information all at once and notice subtle changes or threats in the environment, like a child running after a ball near the road.
There are several cautions necessary with this line of study. First of all, some researchers have failed to achieve the same outcomes when they have replicated these studies. That is an important consideration, but there have also been a number of studies that have, in fact, come up with similar results. It appears that the results reported in these studies are more than mere flukes.
Second, these studies were done with adult subjects, not children. I still maintain that children should limit their exposure to television and the computer. In fact, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that children under age 2 should not watch any television.
Third, increasing perceptual speed isn’t the most important thing in life. While these games might be helpful, they still shouldn’t substitute for person-to-person interaction, reading, or physical activity.
Finally, these studies did not consider the well-documented negative effects of playing violent video games. They only measured perceptual processing. But there are a variety of action games that do not involve graphic violence.
These studies provide evidence that maybe we can lighten up a little when it comes to action games. Your teens might actually be safer drivers if they play action games three or more hours a week. Balancing gaming with social time, family time, recreation, and reading is important. Perhaps a good balance is to read as much as you play. Otherwise, if your teens want to play action games, especially if they are of driving age, let them play.
* For example, see Green and Bavelier’s 2003 study in “Nature,” or Li, Polat, Makous, and Bavelier’s 2009 study in “Nature Neuroscience.”