National Geographic

RCT: video games can hamper reading and writing skills in young boys by displacing other activities

I grew up in the days of the SNES and the Sega Megadrive. Even then, furious debates would rage about the harm (or lack thereof) that video games would inflict on growing children. A few decades later, little has changed. The debate still rages, fuelled more by the wisdom of repugnance than by data. With little regard for any actual evidence, pundits like Baroness Susan Greenfield, former Director of the Royal Institution, claim that video games negatively “rewire” our brains, infantilising us, depriving us of our very identities and even instigating the financial crisis.

Of course, the fact that video games are irrationally vilified doesn’t mean that they are automatically harmless. There’s still a need for decent studies that assess their impact on behaviour. One such study has emerged from Denison University, where Robert Weis and Brittany Cerankosky have tested what happens when you give young boys, aged 6-9, a new video game system. 

They found that after 4 months, boys who had received the games had lower reading and writing scores than expected, failing to improve to the same degree as their console-less peers. They also faced more academic problems at school. At first this might seem like support for the rewired brains of Greenfield’s editorials, but the reality is much simpler – the games were displacing other after-school academic activities. While some children were finishing their homework or reading bedtime stories, those with games were mashing buttons.

There is much to like about Weis and Cerankosky’s study. For a start, it is a randomised controlled trial (RCT), one of the most reliable ways of finding out if something is truly causing a specific effect. Indeed, it is the first such trial looking into the effects of video games on the academic abilities and behaviour of young boys.

The duo recruited 64 lads who didn’t already have a video game system. Half of them – the experimental group – were randomly chosen to receive a Playstation 2 via their parents along with three all-ages games. The other half – the control group – remained without a console.  The parents were told that the study was designed to examine the boys’ development and that the video games were merely incentive for participation.

Four months later, Weis and Cerankosky caught up with the boys. They found that the budding gamers had significantly lower reading and writing scores than those who never received the PS2. In the intervening months, the control group became better at reading and writing, while the gamers stagnated or, if anything, became slightly worse. This didn’t escape the notice of their teachers, who said that they were showing more problems at school in reading, writing and spelling.

On the plus side, the video games had no effect on the boys’ mathematical skills, their attention spans, their ability to concentrate, or their ability to adapt to new problems. Nor did the gamers’ parents report any problems with their behaviour.

Diaries kept by the boys’ parents revealed that the negative aspects of video gaming were due to the fact that the kids with games spent a lot of time playing on them. The control group would occasionally get their hands on a joypad at a friend’s house, but such opportunities only took up an average of 9 minutes a day. Instead, they spent around 32 minutes a day on after-school academic activities. By comparison, the boys who had their own games spent 40 minutes a day with them and only 18 minutes a day on after-school learning. After adjusting for these differences in work-play balance, the link between video games and reading or writing skills vanished.

This displacement explanation also explains why the boys’ maths scores were unaffected – they simply don’t have many maths-based leisure activities for video games to displace. Reading books is one thing but it’s hard to imagine children rolling out the arithmetic worksheets for pleasure.

The differences in reading and writing ability between the two groups were too large to be overlooked. At that age, such skills are particularly important and problems can set children back from picking up more advanced abilities later on in their school careers. Weis and Cerankosky write, “Our findings suggest that video-game ownership may impair academic achievement for some boys in a manner that has real-world significance.”

Such warnings may not be new but until now, they were all based on “cross-sectional” studies, where researchers compare the abilities and video game use of children in a snapshot of time. These studies are never really that informative – a positive correlation could just as easily mean that children who don’t apply themselves at school at more likely to receive games from their parents, or that struggling students are more likely to abandon homework in favour of their games. By doing a trial, Weis and Cerankosky have clarified the direction of cause and effect.

These results suggest that despite some people’s inclination to fear new technology, video games aren’t inherently harmful in themselves. Their danger lies in their ability to shift the balance between work and play. Vaughan Bell, a psychologist from King’s College London and author of the superlative Mind Hacks blog, described the conclusion as “important”. He says, “It fits nicely with the research showing that time watching TV, playing videos games, is associated with obesity because it reduces the amount of physical activity children do. Unfortunately, these sorts of studies rarely get the exposure they deserve and we get crap about games causing brain damage based on nothing but hot air.”

There are, as always, still many unanswered questions. First and foremost, the study says nothing about the controversial topic of video game violence and its impact on children’s behaviour, especially since the games that were offered merely contained “mild cartoon violence and comic mischief”. There’s mixed evidence from previous studies bout whether a link exists between violent games and aggressive thoughts and behaviour. One study published last year showed that violent games delay people from helping others but others have revealed a beneficial side.

Either way, Weis and Cerankosky want to understand the long-term effects after four months, the impact on girls who play different types of games for different reasons, and whether the games could actually be affecting the children at a neurological level. Perhaps a more educational genre of video gaming could even help to boost the children’s academic performance?

Reference: Weis, R., & Cerankosky, B. (2010). Effects of Video-Game Ownership on Young Boys’ Academic and Behavioral Functioning: A Randomized, Controlled Study Psychological Science DOI: 10.1177/0956797610362670

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There are 26 Comments. Add Yours.

  1. IanH
    February 23, 2010

    From a teacher’s point of view, I’d be interested in knowing if there are any comparisons between this and other activities kids pick up. We often assume students who have after-school activities – perhaps music lessons, Scouting or other youth organisations, drama or dance and so on – are likely to improve their performance due to gaining skills, better discipline and so on.
    Hmm… I wonder if a study could be designed with another attractive activity that might be an equivalent distractor…
    Thanks for a fantastic article – and one I will be using at my Year 10 (15-year olds, for non UK readers) parents’ evening this week. I’ll also send people your way via my blog, if I ever actually get any readers myself…

  2. Matty Smith
    February 23, 2010

    I’d be curious to see what KIND of video games the boys were playing. Surely some kinds of video games have better literacy outcomes than others – I can’t see FPSs producing the same results as text-heavy RPGs – although the differences might be pretty minimal. Great article.

  3. Schwa
    February 23, 2010

    I note that all of the games used had very little text. At that age, I played a lot of Final Fantasy and other games which involve gigantic piles of text, and I think they may have helped my reading ability. I did read a lot of books too, though, so as usual, anecdotes are not data.

  4. Scarybug
    February 23, 2010

    I grew up playing games like Final Fantasy and Dragon Warrior, which not only featured a lot of text, but required you to seek huge tomes of information in the form of game-guides to find all of the secrets.
    I wish they had come with a pronunciation guide though. Words like “mage” and “scimitar” confused my eight-year-old brain.
    The thing about games is that they have a more appealing psychological reward system than a lot of other activities. That reward system has a great potential for supplementing education if it’s deployed the right way. (I am biased, I’m an educational game developer)

  5. Ed Yong
    February 23, 2010

    Matty – I actually linked to the three games in the piece above in the words “three all-ages games”. They were: Nicktoons: Battle for Volcano Island, Sonic Riders and Shrek Smash n’ Crash. Probably not very text heavy.
    Good points, everyone, about the effects of text-heavy games and I did make the point at the end about more educational games. Although obviously not all text-heavy games are a good thing…

  6. Liz Ditz
    February 23, 2010

    For the 6 yo set — I wonder if there were compelling games that taught & rewarded increasing mastery of symbol (letters) and sound (phonemes) association would have the same or an opposite set?

  7. southlakesmom
    February 23, 2010

    I suspect that in the pre-video game days if a similar study had used LEGO or riding bikes outside or ANY other kind of distraction, they might have had similar results. Many boys this age would rather do anything other than school-type activities (I know my son was that way).
    I don’t think video games per se cause delays in acquiring other skills necessary for progressing in education. I’m with IanH — and argue from a parenting perspective that it is the parent’s responsibility to place limits on a child’s over indulgence in any one thing, whether it’s Cadbury chocolate or video games.
    And another point — when my son was this age, the games that were designed with skills acquisition in mind (whether linguistic OR math) were so clumsy that his 6 year old mind quickly saw through their ‘fake fun’ factor and he was not interested in them for long. I know games have come a long way since then (only 7 years ago!), so perhaps this kind of study can help game designers.

  8. Anonymous
    February 23, 2010

    “Our findings suggest that video-game ownership may impair academic achievement for some boys in a manner that has real-world significance.”
    Wrong.
    LACK OF AFTER-SCHOOL STUDY may impair academic achievement for some boys in a manner that has real world significance.
    Right.

  9. Ed Yong
    February 23, 2010

    Yep and the video games led to the lack of after-school study. Just because there’s a two-part chain of events doesn’t mean that you get to ignore the first part, especially when the control group didn’t show a lack of after-school study in the absence of video gaming.
    There’s a tendency to react to this in a knee-jerk way, especially if you’re an avid gamer. But remember that this study is not about whether games are “good” or “bad” or anything that trivial. The study was designed to answer a simple question: “All else being equal, what happens when you give young boys video games?”
    The fact that their attention and maths skills didn’t suffer is, in many ways, as significant as the fact that their reading and writing did. It counters assertions from people like Greenfield who suggest that these games are rewiring our brains or doing something directly harmful. Instead, it’s clear that the negative effects of game ownership are mediated through displacement. And yes, as southlakesmon indicates, it means that the onus of responsibility is on parents to break the link between video gaming and reduced scholastic achievement, by limiting their childrens’ gameplay.

  10. Katherine
    February 23, 2010

    Fascinating. Thank you for mentioning proper studies done on the effects of computer games. While I suspect that the anti-games brigade will latch onto this finding and make much of the first part of the chain of events, at least now we can counter it with the actual findings. Nice to see that games don’t cause brain damage too.
    I was originally going to comment that I thought it would depend on the type of game, but I see some people have already done that. Encouraging reading through games FTW.

  11. Paul
    February 23, 2010

    @Ed Yong: “Yep and the video games led to the lack of after-school study.”
    No kidding, in this case.
    The question is this: did the games cause the same lack of study that books, music, TV, movies, board games, sports or plain playing outside would have done, or did they cause more disruption?
    If the former, the study is rubbish and the conclusion misleading – their conclusion being “video-game ownership may impair academic achievement for some boys”. If their conclusion read “extra-curricular distractions may detract from after-school study and therefore impair academic achievements”, they would have a valid point. Albeit a blindingly obvious one.
    If the latter, then they would have a better point to match their conclusions. But, they didn’t both examining any of the alternatives, so their study is misleading trash that’s likely to be picked up by the usual tabloid scaremongers without further thought to attack gamers – hence the reaction.
    “as southlakesmon indicates, it means that the onus of responsibility is on parents to break the link between video gaming and reduced scholastic achievement, by limiting their childrens’ gameplay.”
    Replace the references to videogames with references to comics, sports, TV, board games, looking after a younger sibling, or anything else and you’d have the same message. Why attack video games when the basic message has been the same one every decent parent has been saying for centuries?

  12. aion database
    February 23, 2010

    Aren’t video games supposed to provide fun and entertainment and not to ruin anybody’s life? I think playing video games in moderation will do us no harm and if we guide our children properly with the usage of those gaming consoles, everything will be alright. I guess those experiments just went overboard.

  13. Nick
    February 23, 2010

    I think you may find videogames.procon.org an interesting resource for information on the alleged link between violent video games and youth violence.

  14. Steve
    February 23, 2010

    I see some people comparing video games to other leisure activities that might also distract kids from their home work or from reading-as-leisure (e.g. LEGO, bike riding).
    I think these comparisons are missing the compulsive/addictive aspect that I believe is apparent in video games (I say this as a 35 year old who is still an avid gamer, and has been since we first got an Intellivision console in 1983).
    I would love to see a study on whether computer games can be addictive – in my experience, they can be to an extent – the constant offer of reward and advancement in video games keeps you playing ‘just one more level, just one more turn’.
    I doubt you see many boys (or teenagers or adults) playing LEGO or riding bikes at 2am in the morning, but I’m sure many an adult and teenaged gamer has found themselves finally switching the computer off and realising guiltily that is is 3am and they should have been in bed 5 hours previous.
    I am new parent, and one of the skills that I am determined to instill in my child is the wisdom and will to know when to avoid video games, how to play them in moderation etc.

  15. Steve
    February 23, 2010

    Heh, just on my previous point. A ‘page turner’ book has kept me awake until the middle of the night on many occasions, including as a teenager.
    Maybe someone should do a study on whether the compulsive nature of novel reading can result in a *decrease* in maths ability and/or attention.

  16. IanH
    February 24, 2010

    It looks like several people, like me, are interested in how equivalent activities might also act as distractors from academic-relevant work (I appreciate that at this age it’s unlikely to be formal homework!)
    The link to this study is broken which means I can’t look for references to smilar studies. Does anybody with academic access have suggestions? It’s a really good point above that games are perhaps likely to inspire more addictive/obsessive type behaviour than things like new toys or afterschool drama activites, but I do have several students who play music in bands or rehearse for amateur productions to the exclusion of all work. (I should point out that several of my colleagues would happily play computer games as much as the kids in their classes…)
    I suppose the ideal trial might include several groups:
    no intervention
    computer games
    games with significant litaracy component
    toy based on problem-solving, creative play
    club or activity involving sport/drama/etc

  17. Ed Yong
    February 24, 2010

    Not sure why the DOI link isn’t working but here’s an alternative: http://pss.sagepub.com/content/early/2010/02/17/0956797610362670.abstract

  18. southlakesmom
    February 24, 2010

    Thinking more about this, and reading Steve and Ian’s comments — it is apparent we have LOTS of questions! I wonder if a study looked at teen habits with social interaction sites there would be a corresponding trend. My teen daughter can do her homework with several windows of “conversation” open at the same time, and with music playing. My instinct says she’ll be more time-efficient if she shuts all the rest off and focuses on the homework at hand. But perhaps being able to chat while she does it gives a level of social interaction that encourages her to stay on task.
    I hate it when my ‘parenting instincts’ smack up against this generation’s use of technology in a completely different way than we did. What is ‘entertainment’ to me (using the computer after work hours) is ‘lifeblood’ to them. Sigh.
    I note that I have spent so much time this morning on the machine that I am now running late for meetings. I guess my kids aren’t the only ones…

  19. Briana
    February 24, 2010

    Ed: Most of the DOI links in your articles don’t work when I click on them. I don’t know how many other people have this problem?
    I find it curious why such young children were chosen for this study. It seems like it was meant to be a “door opener” to further investigations, instead of being comprehensive. So with all the questions people are posing, I guess they did a good job.
    I remember when I was in the 6-9 bracket word-munchers and number-munchers were fun, even though I was substantially frustrated when I didn’t get the right answers to problems. I think the difference between those games and some other “learning” games is they were not interupted with academic questions… I’ve noticed many games want you to solve a problem that looks like it came off your spelling quiz before it allows you to continue the game. You just lost a life if you got an answer wrong, it never asked direct questions about a subject.
    As far as the addictive factor, it is true that not just video games can be addictive. But from what I see it is far more likely that they will be, espeically when introduced at a young age. Computers are even worse, because the light from the monitor messes with light/dark cycles and arousal (though don’t make me find the reference for that). In addition to that, many after-school activities for children are active, like karate or ballet. They tire the kids out and can’t be sustained for long periods of time like video games (and reading, however).

  20. Dr. Jason
    February 25, 2010

    I played video games constantly while growing up (NES and Sega) and they certainly didn’t seem to cause me much harm scholastically. In fact, Super Mario Bros. improved my timing and coordination, The Legend of Zelda improved my problem-solving and math skills (how many more rupees before I can buy the red ring), and Final Fantasy improved my reading comprehension and speed (you should have seen me scroll through those screens).
    I understand that I am an N of 1 but I still think that, as many have stated in previous comments, there are far too many confounding factors to truly conclude anything from this study.
    Perhaps I am a bit biased. :)

  21. Ed Yong
    February 25, 2010

    Hang on a minute – remember this is an RCT. Confounding factors are much less of a problem than in observational studies, and aside from the presence of games, the two groups should have been the same, unless you can think of a reason why something else would have systematically varied between the game and control groups. The stuff about the type of games the children were given is a valid point but that’s not a “confounding factor”.

  22. Jason
    February 25, 2010

    I agree that the types of games were not a confounding factor in this study. I suppose my real issue is that aside from video gaming time, were these children really doing the same activities? There is no real way to tell if the gaming group went from playing games to watching television in their spare time while the control group did no such activity and were instead riding bicycles or activity “X”. Therefore, perhaps the video games had nothing to do with it at all and it was actually the television watching time which was replacing their after-school academic endeavors. After all, the control vs. the experimental groups only had a 9 min. vs. 40 min. difference in gaming time. How many hours after school are there in a day? Maybe 6? How can these 31 minutes spent playing video games be the only activity difference that these boys had? How many more rhetorical questions will I ask?
    I will concede that regardless of whether it was time spent gaming or time spent picking their noses, the experimental group certainly spent less time preparing for school with a 14 minute differential on academic-related after school activities. Regardless of whether this was a study or not, shame on these parents! (Dismounts high horse).
    I admit that this is pure conjecture on my part and I could be completely off-base here. I fully admit that your summary is the only real exposure that I have to this study so I certainly do not have all of the information that I need. If this were a true RCT then you would be, of course, correct and the games would be the only cause of the reading deficiecies. I have no direct evidence to lead me to conclude that the two groups were, in fact, behaving differently aside from video games. This is purely my opinion based on personal observations of human behaviour. It is not based upon any fact and therefore can certainly be treated as such.

  23. MissPrism
    February 26, 2010

    I’m boggled that nobody ever bothered doing a straightforward controlled trial before! I suppose having a controversial speculative rant about kids these days and their badly-wired brains is just too tempting.

  24. jack
    February 27, 2010

    WHAT A MISLEADING ARTICLE TITLE.
    Four months later, Weis and Cerankosky caught up with the boys. They found that the budding gamers had significantly lower reading and writing scores than those who never received the PS2.
    OBVIOUSLY if you play games you dont study for school. However it doesnt make you any stupider or hamper your abilities.
    Dear author, YOU SUCK.

  25. IanH
    March 3, 2010

    At the risk of feeding the trolls.
    @Jack (#24)
    You need to (a)read the title (b)read the blog and ideally (c)read the paper before you comment.
    Iy had long been claimed/suggested/feared that computer games decrease academic performance, but science is about data, not anecdotes. This study suggests a mechanism for the reduction in performance (displacing academic activities) as well as showing that it really does happen (in this group, etc etc. I don’t think the article/blog post suggested that it made the gamers stupider, just that it slowed down their progress with literacy activities. This would seem to me to be summed up by the idea of hampering their (acquisition of) reading and writing skills.
    I am going to, with great difficulty, refrain from making the obvious ad hominem comments regarding time spent playing computer games and a lack of reading and writing ability.

Continuing the Discussion

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    [...] 7) RCT: video games can hamper reading and writing skills in young boys by displacing other activities [...]

    December 30, 201013:38 pm

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