The effects of computer games on behavior seems obvious. We, myself included, make assumptions based on our observations. Oxford University has a research group that looks at the effect of gaming on children and their research is always worth a look.
Being a scientist myself the difference between correlation and causation is often overlooked. Correlation means that there is a line on a graph. For instance, the link of wealth and life expectancy. But having money does not make you healthier. Some very rich people are unhealthy, some poor people are very healthy. It is that if you are wealthy, you are more likely to have access to better food, education, access to a gym and healthcare. Less likely to do a hazardous manual job. These are the real causes of your life expectancy. Not that you have a lot of 0s on your bank balance.
In the same way that children who play lots of computer games are more likely to be obese. The playing of the game does not make them obese, but rather that they are less likely to exercise or eat healthily. Some elite sportsmen play hours of gaming to recover from hard exercise sessions.
Does Playing Violent Computer Games Make You Aggressive?
There is a correlation that children who play lots of violent video games have poor behavior. So it does look like there is an effect of computer games on behavior. But it is not necessarily the violent computer games, but the time they spending playing. The parenting in the house hold that allows this, is also the parenting that allows other issues.
One study of more than 400 children were asked to answer questions about how much time they spend playing video games and what type of games they play. They then used this to see if there was a correlation to reported behavior by teachers and parents.
The study did find that playing certain types of games did influence behavior. Specifically, playing violent video games was found to be associated with more aggression and less empathy. The study’s lead author, Dr Andrew Przybylski of the Oxford Internet Institute at Oxford University, stated,’ we can observe linkages between certain sorts of games and children’s behavior, as well as the amount of time they spend playing.’
He then went on to address the specific question, is it the playing of those specific games that causes the violent behavior. Looking at the other variables in the children’s life showed something. A child who plays over three hours of video games a day is probably does not have constructive role modelling at home. They may not get much exercise so have built up energy that they struggle to contain. It is not Grand Theft Auto that makes them aggressive, but rather the time not spent doing more constructive things.
If your child has an issue with violence it is convenient to blame external factors, such a gaming. In the same way if you are overweight it is easier to blame poverty. It is difficult for you to hear that it could be something that you do in your life. Maybe the violent behaviors are those they see within the household or they a lack emotional guidance they have on how to manage emotions.
In a similar way, a poor math grades is not due to the amount of time gaming; it is due to the lack of time studying. If the child was playing soccer for the same amount of time their mathematics would be just as poor.
In a separate study it was noticed that in children under 15, those who play video games for more than three hours each day are more likely to be hyperactive, get into conflicts, and be disinterested in school. The type of game they were playing was not important. This again reflects it is the amount of time playing, rather than the game they play that is the issue. And again not so much the amount of time playing, but the lack of time spent doing other things.
Can Gaming Have Positive Effects on Behavior?
The same study also discovered that low levels of play, less than an hour per day, may be beneficial to behavior. It could be that the slight meditative effect that computer games have. Escaping worries is beneficial. It is not the playing of the games, but the situation. The same as reading a book, playing an instrument or painting may be therapeutic. Although these look more ‘worthy’ it is the same effect.
Some parents may feel that their child’s school grades, and social skills will improve if they play strategy and puzzle games. Again, there is a logic to this. However, the social skills and grades of children who played these games were shown to be comparable to those of their non-playing peers. It is more that if a parent is thinking about these things, that child is likely to be a nurturing environment where they also read and talk at the table.
The effects of computer games on behavior can also be seen in other ways. Children who played cooperative and competitive video games had much fewer emotional and peer-related difficulties. This again is not necessarily that it is a computer game, but rather they are spending a lot of time communicating as a team. If my son is playing Minecraft with a friend on a phone and collectively building a temple. Is this significantly different than if they were doing it with Lego in the same room? Is it not developing social skills?
The co-author of the journal, Allison Mishkin, stated that these findings suggest that playing video games may simply be another form of play that children engage in throughout the digital age, with the benefits derived from the act of playing rather than the medium itself serving as the determining factor.
Final Thoughts on the Effects of Computer Games on Behavior
In the same way our parents might of blamed TV for issues, we are perhaps too quick to blame computer games for issues. The main issue is that computer games can be very addictive, and therefore they suck up a lot of a child’s time. This is time that they are not doing other things, such as communicating or moving. It is not the gaming that is the issue, it is the time used. As above, if a child spend all evening every evening playing football it would have a similar effect. What is important is that your child has a range of experiences. If they find computer games relaxing, that is a positive. If their friends enjoy playing them together that is a positive.
The one element of the research I question somewhat is that the type of game they play has little effect. It may well be less than I assume, but this would make advertising pointless. Also children who watch pornography have different attitudes towards sex that those who don’t.
However, the take home message is clear. Rather than blame your child’s behavioral issues on the box with cables, look what you can do to develop a more rounded life for them. It is clear that it is important to spend time with your child and build a meaningful relationship.