Computer games and child development

Computer games and child development

Christian Albrechts University of Kiel

Faculty of Philosophy

Institute f. Päd.-Psych. Teaching u. Learning research (IPL)

Question: My child often plays on the tablet or the computer. Shall we limit this because it could have negative effects on intelligence and memory?

Many parents are concerned with the question of whether playing on tablet, cell phone and computer could harm the development of children and adolescents and how much play time should be allowed for their children. A variety of different opinions circulate in the media and literature on this topic, ranging from largely prohibiting to largely permitting.

What does current research say on this topic?

Andrew Przybylski, a professor at the Oxford Internet Institute, researches the psychosocial impact of video games and social media. In one of his studies, he examined a representative sample of over 100,000 children and adolescents aged between 10 and 15 years for the negative and positive consequences of video games. What was special about the study was that both aspects (positive and negative) were taken into account by the same people, since several studies hide one of the two aspects and thus only provide an incomplete picture.

Przybylski compared 4 groups: 1. Non-players, 2. Moderate players (up to one hour a day), 3. Medium players (1 to 3 hours a day) and 4. Excessive players (over 3 hours a day).

It turned out that excessive players did indeed have a worse psychosocial adjustment. Compared to non-players, excessive players reported lower life satisfaction, less prosocial behavior and increased problem behavior. These were both increased internalizing problem behavior (i.e. withdrawal, depression, anxiety and somatic symptoms such as abdominal pain, headache and sleep disorders) as well as externalizing problem behavior (i.e. hyperactivity, hostility, aggression, desensitization to risk behavior). Przybylski concluded that excessive play prevents young people from engaging in other socially enriching activities and is at greater risk of children and young people being exposed to inappropriate material. The group of excessive players of more than 3 hours a day showed clear negative consequences of video games.

A completely different picture emerged for the moderate players (up to an hour a day): Compared to the non-players, they even reported a higher level of life satisfaction, more frequent prosocial behavior and less problem behavior (internalizing and externalizing). Przybylski concluded that moderate video games, like traditional games, had healing functions: opportunities for identity development and cognitive and social challenges.

Interestingly, there were no differences between the group of non-players and medium-strong players (1 to 3 hours a day), i.e. the medium-strong players neither benefited from the positive consequences of video games, nor did they show the negative consequences to the same extent.

In 2017, Przybylski and his colleague Weinstein continued this research with a new study. The question was: How are the mental well-being of children and adolescents related to the length of the game? Here, too, it became apparent that the well-being of players initially increased compared to non-players and peaked at a game duration of approx. 1 to a maximum of 2 hours and decreased with further game time.

So video games can have positive effects as long as they do not take up an excessive amount of free time from children and adolescents, so that there is enough time for other enriching social and academic activities.

What are the cognitive effects of video games??

The cognitive effects are also the subject of controversial discussions in which very different points of view are represented, which in turn range from extremely negative to extremely positive consequences.

In a so-called meta-analysis, Kasey Powers from City University New York and her colleagues analyzed the results of 118 individual studies on the effects of video games on information processing.

Comparing non-gamers with habitual gamers showed overall positive effects of video games on the skills of information processing. However, the devil is in the details here:

So the type of game has an impact on the training effects. Memory games had the greatest positive impact on information processing. No or little effects were shown for action, puzzle and non-specific games.

The effects are also very specific. Put simply, a game trains a very specific skill, such as the visual processing. A transfer to other areas or a general increase in intelligence could not be found here.

So if a player plays one and the same game over a longer period of time, he trains the same skill again and again. However, Powers was able to show that after about 10 hours of play, the players have acquired most of the cognitive processes that are required for a game and that further practice hardly increases.

Overall, Powers and her colleagues conclude that video games can have positive effects, but that they are very specific. These authors also emphasize that, above all, there should be sufficient time for other social and academic activities.

What role does the age of children and adolescents play??

Unfortunately, to our knowledge, there are so far few reliable studies that deal with the consequences of video games and social media in children of different ages. Radesky, Schumacher and Zuckerman (2014) give some recommendations on how young children use tablets and smartphones. Like the previously cited scientists, they emphasize that what matters most is how and to what extent children use computers.

It is important that parents do not routinely use tablets and smartphones to immobilize their young children, for example when visiting restaurants. Such measures would negatively impact children’s self-regulation skills, which would be accustomed to not having to overcome boredom and negative emotions themselves, but instead being distracted by technology. Self-regulation, empathy, social skills and problem solving would be learned primarily by exploring the natural environment, which includes interaction with peers and caregivers as well as unstructured, creative play. Due to the omnipresence of smartphones and tablets that started early in the life of children, caution should be exercised that working with them does not replace other activities that are important for development. For example, sensorimotor activities such as climbing, building or working on objects would train visual motor skills, which would be beneficial for later success in science and mathematics, for example.

Radesky, Schumacher and Zuckerman (2014) overall emphasize that the context has a decisive influence on the effects of the use of IPads and smartphones on young children. As a recommendation for the parents, they state that the parents and their young children should use Ipads and smartphones together to better exploit the existing potential of the devices and apps to support learning by embedding them in a context of interaction and mutual reflection.

Overall, according to the current state of science, parents can advise the following:

Video games, smartphones, tablets etc. can be used by children and adolescents for about 1 hour a day, since, according to the current state of knowledge, moderate gaming can have positive consequences for psychosocial development. Younger children in particular should not be able to play alone, but should be able to talk about the games with their parents. It is important that parents exchange information about the content of the games with their children of all ages, but above all with whom they are played. Who do your children have contact with through online games? If the learning effect is to be in the foreground, it could make sense to switch games frequently and play different types of games. For all ages, there is sufficient time for other social and academic activities, this seems to be the case, especially when the game lasts up to an hour.

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