By John Walker on November 18th, 2013 at 10:00 am.
A paper published this year (pdf) by the University Of Glasgow (and only just spotted by us and everyone else) looked at whether playing videogames at 5 years old brought about any behavioural changes by the time the subjects were 7. And found there none. In fact, it found that while they could measure an extremely small difference when it came to more time spent in front of the television, perhaps surprisingly, the same wasn’t shown to be true of gaming. Of course, as is always the case, it’s well worth asking “why?” before marching down the street sounding trumpets. Let’s take a look.
The science of whether videogames adversely affect children’s behaviour has never been great. Studies have focused on ludicrously small sample sizes, looked for peculiar or inspecific behaviours and then drawn wild conclusions (both for an against the argument), or been funded by lunatic fundamentalist pressure groups who then twist the findings to their needs. So the Alison Parkes, Helen Sweeting, Daniel Wright, et al’s large-scale longitudinal study into how both television and games affect children is very welcome indeed.
11,014 children were featured in this trial, making it by far one of the largest of its kind. The aim was to explore what behavioural changes would be seen in those children who spent more hours in front of television and videogames at such a young age. I’d add that this is a key developmental period in a young child’s life, the same time as they would be experiencing school for the first time. The paper’s methods state,
“Typical daily hours viewing television and playing electronic games at age 5 years were reported by mothers of 11 014 children from the UK Millennium Cohort Study. Conduct problems, emotional symptoms, peer relationship problems, hyperactivity/inattention and prosocial behaviour were reported by mothers using the Strengths and Difﬁculties Questionnaire. Change in adjustment from age 5 years to 7 years was regressed on screen exposures; adjusting for family characteristics and functioning, and child characteristics.”
Studies predicting children’s behaviour in response to videogames are rare. And that’s generally a question of morality – trying to conduct a study where a select group of very young children are required to play adult videogames in order to measure changes in their behaviour… well, you can see why that’d have trouble getting past an ethics committee. The Glasgow study has the enormous advantage of not being directly involved in the gaming exposure, instead following the private lives of such a large group of families, without direct influence. And as a result, for the first time we can see data that reflects something closer to the reality of gaming’s effects. And that data shows that while increased hours of TV exposure shows a minor by statistically significant increase in behavioural issues, gaming did not.
“Watching TV for 3 h or more at 5 years predicted a 0.13 point increase (95% CI 0.03 to 0.24) in conduct problems by 7 years, compared with watching for under an hour, but playing electronic games was not associated with conduct problems. No associations were found between either type of screen time and emotional symptoms, hyperactivity/inattention, peer relationship problems or prosocial behaviour. There was no evidence of gender differences in the effect of screen time.”
The paper points out in its introduction just how much this goes against the expected. Gaming, we have been told for many years, is much more directly linked with aggression, ADHD, and social issues. As the paper postulates,
“Games may have more powerful effects due to active user engagement, identification with characters and repeated rehearsal and reinforcement. Gaming’s interactive and absorbing qualities may substitute for interpersonal relationships and increase social isolation. Such isolation may provoke anxiety and depression, or, if coupled with reduced empathy (from exposure to violent games) may depress prosocial behaviour.”
That’s familiar reading, and seems to represent the accepted fears of a child’s playing games. However, this apparently rigorous study (by my reading of it) showed something strikingly different. Conducted via the Millennium Cohort Study, which followed the lives of around 19,000 families for the first seven years of their child’s life, the research group gave the mothers of the families the Strengths And Difficulties Questionnaire to measure behavioural changes in their children. And crucially, it differentiated between television screen time (TV, DVDs) and videogame screen time, as well as gender. It has so often been assumed that TV and gaming were analogous, that most previous studies haven’t differentiated.
So what did they find? First of all, there was no significant difference in behavioural changes between boys and girls at all, when comparing like-for-like times in front of the screen. TV showed significant – albeit small – negative changes in “conduct problems” when young children were exposed to more than three hours a day. The same time spent gaming showed no statistically significant changes at all.
So how come? It’s worth reading the paper itself to see quite how carefully the results have been adjusted for a great many of external factors that would have effects on a child’s behaviour. But one of the most immediately relevant factors might well be the increased control parents may have over the videogames a five year old plays. It’s far easier for television to go unmonitored than what games a kid has access to, and while there will certainly be plenty of examples of children who have access to 18 certificate games, it’s much more likely that parents are going more closely monitor this. So perhaps the study wasn’t measuring like for like in terms of content? And of course the study is severely limited by relying entirely on the honesty of the mothers filing the reports. And indeed the lack of information about what programmes or games were being watched or played.
It’s also worth noting that the findings for the negative effects of television were much less than some previous studies have found. You may want to interpret that as meaning their methods resulted in lower findings, and apply that to the gaming numbers. But the paper itself argues that this is because of a greater taking into account of “confounders” – other aspects of a young person’s life that might affect their behavioural changes. Traditionally such studies tend to adjust for nothing other than demographic information, which relies on sweeping generalisations when it comes to other potential influences. This study aimed to adjust the findings to eliminate as many of these as was possible, in order to get figures that genuinely reflected screen time. And I’d argue that’s a big deal – so very often similar studies used to condemn gaming by the press have failed to take such things into account, and have offered data that absolutely fails to recognise the reality of young people’s lives. They leave themselves open to questions like, “But what if that child were watching more television because of a complete lack of parental involvement? Surely the lack of parenting is the significant factor?” This study, to my reading, attempts to adjust for that.
Of course, another factor the study can’t measure for is whether it’s actually what takes place when a child is not in front of a screen that accounts for a positive impact on their lives. Perhaps rather than three hours plus of TV directly causing problems, it’s the activities that replace screen time that actively prevent them?
So conclusions? It seems the takeaway message here is that moderate screen time of any type has little to no effect on a child’s behaviour or developmental issues. And yes, this is a very strong, well-conducted study that does show that gaming appears to be a less harmful pursuit for young people than television. It’s not possible to draw the broad, celebratory conclusions that I’m sure some will take from this study, and champion gaming as the key to a healthy childhood. But it’s an extremely significant study that suggests exposure to gaming, even as much as over three hours a day, does not cause the harmful effects that are so often attributed.
The findings also suggest that over three hours a day in front of the TV puts your child in risk of a negative impact to their behaviour and wellbeing. That seems well worth taking on board for parents. And replacing some of that screen time with gaming instead isn’t a solution either. So, as ever, it’s moderation. Appropriate gaming is likely not harming your child, although the study acknowledges it does not reflect the effects of violent content. But taking them away from the screen to engage in other activities too seems, as ever, to be a recipe for a healthier childhood.