Many studies have linked television viewing with increasing attention problems among children, and more recently, have included video games in the equation. Most recent studies look at total “screen time,” meaning total time spent watching television and playing video games and computer games. The recommended maximum screen time is two hours a day. A recent study, to be published in the August 2010 journal Pediatrics, goes further and looks at college students as well. It finds that excessive time playing video games as a schoolchild adds to attention problems even into late adolescence and young adulthood.
Some have protested that video games require active participation by the player, unlike television, which is completely passive. They point to the fact that many children who reportedly have attention deficits can spend hours involved in video games.
What is the similarity between video games and television, and what is the difference between video games and the kind of attention needed for learning? And why does it matter?
Watching television is a passive activity, but it depends on holding the viewer’s attention. It does this by a quick sequence of changing images, most lasting only a few seconds. Our brains are programmed to notice quick movement within our range of vision as part of our survival equipment. This alerts us to possible danger, and also to possible food. When I was in college, a teacher told of anthropologists who took a short film of a primitive tribe, and then showed it to them. When asked about what they had seen, they all mentioned a rabbit running in the background, though they did not see any resemblance between the world they knew and the two-dimensional images on the screen.
While video games are interactive, they also are full of quickly moving images that can keep the player in a rapt attentive mode. I have had the same experience with television commercials, computer games and hand-held video games: I plan to do something during the commercial or after a round of the game, and find myself some time later still attentively in place. And I play slower games like tetris and hearts and some word games rather than action games.
Young brains are more vulnerable to such influences than mature brains, since they are forming the neural pathways they will need for learning and working later in life. A central component of this development focuses on language skills. Singing a song or setting up a tea party with a friend involves active processes, including making sense of language, self-talk, imagination. These lay down complex neural pathways. The more such pathways are established, the more the child will be able to use them later for more complex learning. Doing a jigsaw puzzle, drawing a picture and telling about it, listening to a story on tape – the brain has time to perform complex motor, language, and imaging processes, and to lay the pathways for future learning. It is not pulled away by constantly changing images.
Experts set the maximum recommended total screen time at two hours a day, and many recommend only five to seven hours a week. A study published in the journal Pediatrics in June 2010 found that consistent limits set by parents actually did limit the self-reported use of video games in children, as did parental encouragement of physical activity. Parents do have an influence, and more parental involvement is still a positive thing.