It’s half term and that familiar parental angst about how much time my 11 year old on Joe spends playing computer games has reared its head. Is it OK? How much time should he be doing, what should he not be doing? Mumsnet is a disaster zone of ill-informed droSo this time I thought I’d try and do a bit of googling and a twitter request to try to make my own mind up. If anyone has any serious studies to help me out, I would be grateful:
Here’s what I’ve unearthed so far and my current thinking:
They will change the brain, but is that bad?
Like Baroness Greenfield, I do think that computer games will alter the brain, because everything we do influences the way the brain develops. Like taxi drivers grow bigger bits of brain to do with finding your way around places and everytime you practice anything your brain grows skills in that area. Check out Matthew Syed’s Bounce, a great book which shows that practice pretty much trumps innate skill every time!
I was also think Aric Sigman makes some interesting points, though agree about the cherry picking jibe from Ben Goldacre, though he is at is most unhelpful & silly and thoughtless here on Newsnight. So much huff and puff rom everyone.
However, as I ponder below, I don’t necessarily think the things they are learning and the ways their brains are changing may actually be that bad. Particularly if in moderation, with lots of other things going on.
I’m not worried about him becoming a serial killer
It appears to me irrelevant that serial killer Anders Behring Breivik practiced on computer games to hone his skills, ergo computer games make you a serial killer – astonishing rubbish written on that. My son is a very pleasant sociable character and nothing in his computer game playing persona gives me any pause for thought that this is being in any way changed by the games he plays.
Here’s an article which explores a bit of that dubious thinking. Thanks to @nobyleong from twitter.
I am a bit worried about impulsivity and concentration
He does have some poor ‘impulse control’ and ‘concentration difficulties’, ie this is mainly that he is a sporty 11 year old who can’t be bothered to make an effort doing the boring lessons he doesn’t like and who, disappointingly, has done pretty well on the minimum of effort so far, thus proving to him that he doesn’t need to! I understand and hope he will come down to earth with a bump in a few years time, when more complex thinking is required!
It’s always the parents!
There’s some fascinating work on why this is, by the way, from Carol Dweck on ‘Fixed Mindset’ and ‘Growth mindset’ people. I highly recommend this to any parent. Yet again, it’s the parent’s fault for praising the child for being smart, rather than encouraging effort. We are working on that one too!
In addition, some inconsistent parenting from us; being an only child with no siblings to practice being wound up by; and the poor quality gene pool he comes from in this regard may have something to do with this!
(Next parenting tip, highly recommend Noel Janis Norton’s Calmer, Happier Parenting – just started this programme and already fantastic results)
Do games normalise bite sized concentration spans or is that just life?
I think this is considered not just to be computer games, but modern life. As a fan of twitter (where I now get most of my information for work, but don’t use socially), and email I do feel that it is too easy to get distracted. This requires a concerted effort not to use this as a displacement activity. Mostly I fail. This is in particular when I am not particularly busy, or have a scary deadline which needs putting off a little more. However after reading The Procrastination Equation, I find that’s not just me, but most people, including those who don’t spend their lives chained to the computer. So maybe it’s the human condition, it’s just that we have better tools to help us now?
So given my improved understanding of what fosters poor impulse control from Dweck and Norton among others, I am wondering if perhaps it is a part of modern life, but can be overcome by learning and teaching certain skill sets? Should this be part of the curriculum?
These are not lonely pastimes but highly sociable – so then what?
As I am writing this I am hearing whoops of excitement and fun from downstairs where he is playing Minecraft (an online creative sort of game where you make buildings and stuff(!), which I do approve of, with his pals on Skype). So, far from being the domain of the sad and lonely nerd, they are a great way of playing with pals in different countries and make a rainy day something to be looked forward to. Even World of Warcraft (so passe now, by the way, if you are 11), was a way of playing with his pal who had moved to another part of the country and helped that little chap make the transition a smooth one).
My nephew did have a period of messing up his exams, and spending too much time in the middle of the night on WWC, to the detriment of friendships. However, he has a computer in his bedroom which was an issue. He now has an interesting college course, a girlfriend and a car and WWC is no more! Phew!
Here is an interesting article on the potential benefits of computer games, thanks to @nobyleong from twitter. Here’s a bit of a stretched one on BBC inc research from Prof Mark Griffiths, computer games research expert at Nottingham Trent and here’s what looks to me a dubious one from Iowa State.
Is a bad temper while gaming a sign of deteriorating impulse control, or is increasing mastery of it going to serve him well elsewhere?
However, he has got a very bad temper when prevented from doing what he wants in any part of life, in particular, when the game gets really hard and stressful or when he has to come off it when he doesn’t want to. He is also (and has always been) really short tempered and chippy with specific kids in the playground who he feels wind him up, though is also quite popular with lots of really nice friends. Are they connected?
The tantrums appear to be about frustration with the game or the timing of having to come off it and do something else. Is this about the game being addictive, the parenting and expectation management or a bit of both?
Our current plan is that when he shouts out and complains at the computer game he has to stop. He is getting better at controlling himself and we have stopped the really difficult ones.
It is very very frustrating to be randomly ‘killed’ by a total stranger for no reason and have them nick all your hard earned booty. Personally I would be going ballistic too. So because it is so difficult and so upsetting and stressful we are going to give them a rest for a few years.
But is this an example of a computer game causing poor impulse control, or will in fact his increasing mastery of managing frustration in these games and when being made to stop doing something he likes, result in an improved ability to manage frustration in other parts of his life? I think if we handle it right and don’t ask too much of him in terms of games, they could be very helpful in that regard.
Is the violence harmful?
Many of his buddies (annoyingly the well behaved, quiet ones mainly) play the shoot em ups, such as Call of Duty, and until recently he has too. I let him partly from poor parenting, partly because ‘everyone does it’ and partly because they all seemed much of a muchness from those in his age group and upwards, and also the shooting and gore almost comedic.
He has certainly not got more violent, aggressive or otherwise computer game-like in his playing since then, as far as I can see. Stories of kids playing shooting games in the playground seem to me to be doing what every boy has done since the history of time. Though perhaps they have more lifelike actions since TV and computer games were invented. But I don’t see much different to this than some of the films and TV programmes they are allowed to watch.
However, the gratuitous nature of this all pervasive on screen violence somehow does feel wrong, but I can’t put my finger on really what is different. We have taken away the older ones, and have the parental controls on for blood and gore & swearing. Though poor parental role modelling and Russell Howard’s Good News and many other TV programmes also make the swearing another non-event!
Here is an interesting article about the Militarisation of society because of computer games which was interesting. Thanks to @nobyleong on twitter.
But it is more fun than anything else – what is it displacing?
But perhaps the main problem for me is, it’s more fun than anything else, because it’s designed that way. He would, and on occasion has, played it all day. My thinking was that if I let him, he would get bored of it as he has with TV and other screeny pastimes, but this appears not to be the case. So we are now looking at restrictions.
My current thinking is to keep him busy. He is in the swimming, cricket and tennis teams so does exercise at least once or twice a day at school, he also does trumpet and has a few outdoorsy, inventive buddies – they have built a tree ‘house’ ( OK, a bunch of planks nailed up a tree!) where I serve them their lunch and dinner from time to time, they have fun with lego, indoor patball etc.
He and I have even done drawing, cooking and sometimes reading has been known to happen. (The Cherub series, the book equivalent of a computer game, has revolutionised his reading habits!). But we don’t do many museums, because we all think they are a bit boring, and rarely go to the cinema or these organised days out. Perhaps we should do more of that and I should organise more of that stuff rather than sitting here ‘working’!
We just looked up the National Trust 50 Things to do before you are 11 ¾ and had done them except camping in the wild! Hurray!!
So it boils down to how long is too long?
We have decided on the following restrictions – if you have got this far, any views? The advice I see says an hour a day including TV, which I think is daft, particularly on a rainy day in the hols:
- No screens in the bedroom ever been allowed.
- None in the morning before school
- An hour a day in the week after homework done. (We are working on some chores too!), but not after 7.30 even if the hour is not up. Bed at 8.30, lights out at 9)
- Three hours at the weekend or in school holidays, 4 if playing with friends. This is the problem bit. On a rainy day, with no-one to play with, and lots of buddies ringing up to play fun games, it does seem churlish.
- He is allowed to play shoot em ups older than his age group, but we do have ‘blood, gore and swearing’ parental controls in place. We recently decided no 18’s, not really because of the violence, but because of the stress of playing them.
- He has been drilled about safety, not giving out one’s name, personal details etc and is very aware of people being nice to him and promising stuff. We are keeping vigilant on this and appreciate it may in the future be a problem, but at the moment it doesn’t seem an issue.
Here’s Prof Mark Griffiths ‘Advice to Parents’ which seems pretty sensible.
I also liked this Microsoft Get Game Smart website which gives lots of hints and tips on things for kids of all ages, including how to set parental controls for different types of device.