My son’s teacher called us Friday morning with news we weren’t happy to hear.
Our son has been regularly late to class . . . papers disorganized . . .
And then just the day before our son O was playing with a rubber band and hit another child in the eye by accident.
No maliciousness, mind you. But carelessness. (Fortunately, the other child is okay.)
After I got off the phone and filled my husband in with the news it didn’t take us too long to conclude the same thing . . .
He had just started playing the video games again.
It’s been an ongoing issue with my son. A few years back we allowed him to download a few online games and play them. He repeatedly had a hard time getting off the game when we set a time limit. And then we started noticing a correlation with behavior problems.
So we kept him off the computer for weeks at a time, using the video game playing as a rare privilege and reward for good behavior. This seemed okay despite the fact that we had to really watch him like a hawk to make sure he got off on time. We didn’t really connect his overall distracted behavior and frequent bouts of irresponsible behavior with the video games.
However, the impact of video games on his overall behavior became crystal clear to us this summer when we allowed him to purchase an Ipod with his own money.
Within a few days, we made him return it.
After being on his Ipod for a half hour or more, he couldn’t focus on chores. He was late, distracted, disrespectful. His behavior was noticeably different. Then we found him sneaking it around, into his bedroom or the bathroom and playing with it even when he didn’t have permission to.
As soon as he returned the little electronic device his behavior changed. He was much more focused and respectful. His chores – while not always done right (which is normal for any 12 year old boy) – were much more consistently done and done well.
Instead of fiddling with this device, he spent his time climbing trees, watching the chickens, and wandering in the woods playing his imaginary games. One day I surreptitiously watched him carefully act out a dramatic rendition of King Harold’s final fight and action-packed death from the Battle of Hastings that he had just read about. He built a crossbow and made a scuba device from some rocks, two gallon milk jugs and some old garden hose.
Based on what we witnessed this summer, video games were going back to being a rare treat.
But of course, those kinds of resolutions lose their mettle over the passage of time mixed in with a few redeeming sessions of good behavior.
During the week leading up to the phone call from his teacher, he had been allowed to play on the computer 3 different times for an hour each time.
So it didn’t surprise us too much when we heard from her. We looked at each other ruefully and firmly declared:
“No more video games.”
The Most Important Evidence Against Video Games For Your Children
I write this because I know you’re probably gearing up for the holidays and planning special gifts. And I’m sure many of you are planning an electronic gift or two for your kids.
I’m urging you to reconsider.
Before I get into some of the science behind what we witnessed at home, I ask you this:
Look carefully: What are you seeing in you, in your children and in the larger culture with our increasing use of electronic devices for entertainment?
The reason I’m starting with this question is because while science has racked up some compelling evidence, this is also a challenge to you as a parent to use your own observation skills and draw your own conclusions based on what you see. Essentially . . . Look. Think.
We’ve got a lot of common sense and good instincts inside of us . . . and it may get buried sometimes with all the busy-ness of our lives . . . but it’s there. Use it.
I suspect you’ll discover that when you read about some of the research I’m about to share, you’ll think to yourself, “That makes sense. I noticed that. I felt that. I saw that. I can see this happening in me and my own children.”
Got it? So first, think for yourself and mull over what you’ve observed and wondered about.
Okay, now the officially researched evidence . . .
Video Games Can Be Addictive
First of all, video games can be addictive. Literally. Like a drug.
Researchers at Chung Ang University College of Medicine In Seoul, Korea recruited 21 healthy university students to look at this. They found that the brain activity among students who craved playing a video game was distinctively different from students who were not hooked on games. And most startling, the brain activity in the subjects craving games was similar to the brain activity of people who were addicted to drugs.
When these same researchers experimented by administering the drug Bupropion, the craving for internet video game playing decreased significantly. Bupropion is usually used as an antidepressant but it also is used to treat smoking and methamphetamine addiction.
So before we get any farther in discussing the pro’s and con’s of video game playing, it’s important to recognize that these toys we let our kids play with may be as dangerously addictive as cigarettes and even meth.
But are they mind-altering like some addictive drugs?
Perhaps not as dramatically. But the short answer is “yes”.
Video Games Make It Harder To Plan And Exercise Judgment
Some research has shown that video game playing can help increase brain activity in helpful ways. For example, one study showed that video game players were better at hand-eye coordination, making them better prepared to perform remote surgeries and other activities that require this kind of dexterity.
Okay, perhaps that’s good. But do you want your surgeon to be someone who cannot plan, think ahead, monitor their behavior or exercise self-restraint?
Because this is the other part of the video-game-playing package . . .
Research has shown that video game playing reduces activity and blood flow to the frontal lobe of the brain. And this has tremendous consequences.
Your brain is kind of like a muscle. If you don’t use it, you lose it.
When you don’t use parts of your brain, your body reduces blood flow to these areas. Neurons aren’t nourished and new neurons aren’t added on. The connections become weaker. Eventually this part of the brain shrinks due to lack of use.
The frontal lobe is the part of your brain you use to exercise emotional restraint and manage your behavior. This is why some research has shown clear connections between increased aggression and violent video game playing. In fact one study showed that there may even be a correlation between the highest number of kills in the video game and the most severely impulsive behavior.
But while violence maybe a concern, the problem is much bigger. The frontal lobe governs your ability to problem solve and plan ahead.
While violent games may be feeding violent fantasies, research shows that even using non-violent games like puzzles has the same effect when it comes to frontal lobe development. Essentially, the part of your brain that works to help you think ahead and work out tough problems won’t be as strong after video game playing.
One study looking at this compared the brain activity of hundreds of teenagers. Some of the participants read aloud and did math problems while another group played video games.
The video games only stimulated parts of the brain associated with vision and movement. The math problems, in contrast, used both the left and right hemispheres of the frontal lobe – the parts associated with learning, emotional control and memory.
Now interestingly enough, this study was designed to demonstrate the positive learning benefits of video games. The research team was hoping to use the study to gain more research dollars from educational video game producers.
Needless to say, the head researcher, Ryuta Kwashima from Tohoku University in Japan, was shocked by the results and felt compelled to share what they discovered at educational conferences. He urges parents to get their children outside to play instead of playing video games. He urges parents and educators to pay attention to what he sees as a very dangerous trend.
When you consider the fact that your frontal lobe’s main phase of development occurs while we’re young – under the age of 20, you can see how critical this is that our children spend as little time playing video games as possible.
And while video games specifically are demonstrably damaging, other electronic activities also seem to be causing harm.
- Research conducted at the University of Michigan Institute for Social Research, tracking empathy among college students over 30 years using the Davis Interpersonal Reactivity Index found that empathy has declined 48% since 1979. And they noted that the most notable declines occured after 2000 after social networks like Facebook and Myspace began to flourish.
- Research out of Columbia University indicates that we may be losing our memory skills as a culture thanks to Google. Because it’s so easy to access trivia, we have stopped working as hard to retain information. It’s a natural tendency to not focus on retaining info we can easily access. But the researchers raise the question as to whether we’re losing this ability to an unhealthy level.
If you’re starting to get a little worried, good. This is a big problem we’re facing.
But don’t lose hope since there are ways to nurture a video game-damaged brain back to better health . . .
Exercise Does Just The Opposite Of Video Games
Now you’ve probably heard a lot about the link between video game playing and the rising rates of obesity among children. And certainly there’s a connection between kids sitting around more, only exercising their fingers, and gaining weight.
And just to be clear, plenty of research shows that those so-called “healthy” games, like the Wii don’t make a difference when it comes to weight. Anyone who has played soccer knows soccer on that game is like comparing tiddlywinks to basketball.
But the lack of exercise in favor of gaming isn’t just linked to bigger bellies.
Exercise’s benefits also goes right to the brain.
I’ve written about this elsewhere in describing how exercise helps children think. Essentially, research shows that exercise increases activity and growth in the frontal lobe of the brain. Researchers in Georgia have shown that regular exercise for overweight children helps improve behavior, math skills and reading ability in the short span of a month. No extra tutoring needed.
Give Your Children A Future By Not Giving Them This Gift
So I’m using strong language here: Give your children a viable future. Don’t give them another electronic device this holiday.
I’m very concerned about the future – we’re raising a generation that physiologically is losing their ability to reason and manage their behavior. Their brains are literally being rewired in a way that diminishes their ability to problem solve and exercise good judgment.
I won’t place all the blame on video games. We’re a culture that downplays discipline, responsibility and activity. Our emotional intelligence and physical health is declining rapidly thanks to a whole host of factors.
And even with my son’s recent transgression, we’ll still let him play video games on occasion – but very rarely!
Last week I urged you to focus your resources on nourishing your family and your health so you can get through the potentially tough times ahead.
Again, I’m urging you to do this – but specifically with regards to electronic gaming.
In the recommended resources section, I list a bunch of family fitness gift ideas you can consider – true investments in your family’s health and well being. All of them resources we’ve used and loved.
But today, I want to just leave you to mull over this.
Give your children a tremendous gift – a healthy brain capable of creativity, learning, planning and developing mature behavior that can help them through life’s challenges. Don’t give them an electronic gadget or video game.
What are your observations or thoughts on this? Please come over to Facebook and share.
Anonymous. Empathy: College students don’t have as much as they used to. University of Michigan news service. May 27, 2010.
Anonymous. Video gaming prepares brain for bigger tasks. Psychology and Sociology. September 24, 2010.
Bailey K et al. A negative association between video game experience and proactive cognitive control. Psychophysiology 2010 Jan 1:47(1):34-42.
Han DH et al. Bupropion sustained release treatment decreases craving for video games and cue-induced brain activity in patients with internet video game addiction. Exp Clin Psychopharmacol. 2010 Aug: 18(4): 297-304
Han DH et al. Changes in cue-induced, prefrontal cortex activity with video-game play. Cyberpsychol Behav Soc Netw. 2010 Dec: 13(6): 655-61.
Matsuda G et al. Sustained decrease in oxygenated hemoglobin during video games in he dorsal prefrontal cortex: a NIRS study of children. Neuroimage. 2006 Feb 1:29(3): 706-11.
McVeigh T. Computer games stunt teen brains. The Observer, 18 August 2001
Sparrow B et al. Google Effects on Memory: Cognitive Consequences of Having Information at Our Fingertips. Science 5 August 2011 333:6043:776-778
About Sarah Clachar And Fit Family Together
Since expecting their first child, Sarah and her husband Cassius have made fitness a core part of their family life. From biking to hiking . . . from the heart of New York City to a farm in New England, they have found a way to stay active together. And through all this exercising as a family they discovered that family fitness builds not only strong bodies – but stronger families.
A professional health writer with a BA in biology, gardener and foodie Sarah brings a wealth of expertise in nutrition and health. A personal trainer and inveterate tinkerer, Cassius brings innovation to making family fitness work.
Ready to make family fitness part of your family life? Take the Fit Family Together 7 Day Family Fitness Challenge and put your own family fitness plan together.