Video games, TV can create vicious cycle in impulsive children

Playing video games can create a vicious cycle that attracts some children with attention and impulse control issues, and then exacerbates that problem, according to the findings of a recent study. But, the researcher behind that study tells Vox Games, that impact is likely no different than the effect television would have on those same children.

The key finding, Douglas A. Gentile, PhD, of Iowa State University and lead author of the study says, is that not enough time has been spent studying the impact environment can have on children with issues like impulse control and attention deficit disorder. Instead, most research has focused on biological and genetic factors in the past.

The problem, Gentile says, requires looking at both nature and nurture, both the heredity of these problems and what impact parenting and environment has on them.

"We've focused on biology and genetics almost exclusively in the past, it has led to some breakthroughs in medications," Gentile said. "But this has left parents feeling powerless when their child's school calls and tells them there may be a problem. Parents have been left feeling like the only option is to medicate their children, which many are understandably hesitant to do. Once we understand some of the environmental aspects that can increase or decrease attention problems, this can give parents a first step to try before they move onto medications."

A group of researchers tracked the behavior and gaming habits of more than 3,000 children, aged 8 to 17, in a dozen schools in Singapore over three years. The study had the children take a number of self-reporting tests to diagnose ADHD and impulse-control issues. It also asked the children to track how often they played video games and how violent those games were. The study, Gentile said, was part of a much larger study on the positive and negative effects of video games.

In the paper, published in the American Psychological Association's journal Psychology of Popular Media Culture, the researchers argue that video games both help and hurt with attention issues. Video games may help with "visual attention," the ability to take-in and process information from your surroundings quickly, but can make it harder for some children to complete goal-oriented tasks that require long-term concentration. That's because, according to the paper, the excitement of playing a video game might make other things less interesting. Time spent playing video games, the paper adds, can also take away from the time a child might spend developing their impulse control.

"Electronic media use can impair attention necessary for concentration even as it enhances the ability to notice and process visual information"

Gentile added, though, that there are multiple types of impulse control.

"It's likely that games could be beneficial for some types and harmful for others," he said.

The study found that the children who spent more time playing video games were more impulsive and had more attention problems. In turn, the study found, children who have those issues also tended to play more video games.

"It is possible that electronic media use can impair attention necessary for concentration even as it enhances the ability to notice and process visual information," Gentile said.

But culturally, video games are becoming as prevalent as television in a child's social life, making it harder for children to remain a part of their group without participating in gaming. Gentile, who limits both the amount and content of the video games his own child plays, say the prevalence of gaming is one of the reasons he conducts this research.

"Certainly games (and other media) have many potential benefits and potential harms," he said. "The reason I study the media and children is to try to learn how to maximize the benefits and minimize the potential harms."

Good Game is an internationally syndicated weekly news and opinion column about the big stories of the week in the gaming industry and its bigger impact on things to come. Brian Crecente is a founding editor News Editor of Vox Games.

Image credit: Iowa State University

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