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Children and computer games: research exists, and the jury is out

18 December 2015


From Evelyn Sweerts

Sir, — Wendy Boulton’s letter “What are video games doing to our children?” (11 December) raises important issues that demand more thought.

Ms Boulton states that she watched her grandson play the game with increasing concern. She does not say whether she offered him alternative entertainment, but my own experience is that most alternatives are unappealing compared with the addictive rush of video games. We do well to ask why this is, to understand better how to manage gaming appropriately. What (felt) need is gaming meeting for children? Why are books, toys, and outdoor play perceived by children to be “less fun”?

She further insinuates links between video games, mental health, distorted brain development, and an alleged rise in violence, without citing any studies. In fact, a 2013 review of research to date (“The Benefits of Playing Video Games”, Isabela Granic, Adam Lobel, and Rutger C.M.E. Engels, Radboud University Nijmegen; Nijmegen, The Netherlands; American Psychologist, Vol. 69, No. 1) found that there were considerable benefits to playing video games as well as negative side effects (e.g. addiction). Among experts, the jury is out.

And care is required: do video games lead to violence, or are violent people attracted to violent video games? Speaking of violence, Steven Pinker has made a strong statistical case that violence on all scales (world war to interpersonal) has declined since 1945, which undermines Ms Boulton’s argument.

There is a hint of blaming parents in the letter, in Ms Boulton’s comments about parents’ using games as a pacifier. But here we also need to ask the underlying questions: why do parents not feel able to trust their children to behave unless they are “anaesthetised”? Why do we fear boredom? What (felt) need is children’s gaming meeting for parents? “Go play outside” is not as simple as it was, given how many more cars are on the roads. Fear of kidnapping, a key reason that parents have abandoned unsupervised outdoor play, is statistically unfounded — but real enough to modify behaviour.

We need to place electronic devices in their social context: e.g. working parents, changing life-patterns, and real and perceived safety concerns. In terms of solutions (if there is indeed a problem), evaluation in isolation is close to meaningless. A return to a pre-electronics era is unlikely, which means that we are all — young and old — going to have to learn how to handle devices appropriately.

Offering alternatives might be helpful, and churches may be able to contribute to this. An electronics-free after-school or youth club is just one thing that many churches are already doing, and that allows children to experience an alternative, and supports working parents.

If (and that is itself debatable) we want to get children off devices, we are going to have to start by understanding the appeal to both parents and the young — and then supporting rather than judging the parents.

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