Media Alert: Children, Screen Time, Gaming and Learning
Dr. Olaf Jorgenson
Posted December 24, 2010
With holiday shopping well underway, reports indicate that electronics and digital media are top requests among youth this year. Video games, iPods, cell phones, iPads and other popular devices are hot sellers as parents feed their children’s electronic appetites.
Many of us are very careful when it comes to our children’s nutrition, sleep and academics; yet relatively few parents today know the ingredients of the digital diet they’re providing, or the very real impact it has on brain development and learning.
In Silicon Valley, we’re more receptive to technology’s promise and its inevitable proliferation. At our schools, we want students to be adept in using technology.
But we also must be mindful of a growing population of young people, immersed in a digital world in their home environments, who experience real problems completing basic academic tasks like homework or reading assignments. Unable to pay attention in class for any length of time, they’re ambivalent about the impact that screen time has on their learning or grades.
Vanessa Galante, a first grade teacher at Almaden Country School, wrote a Master’s thesis surveying research examining how screen time (TV, computers and handheld devices) shapes student behavior in early childhood, documenting the effects of excessive exposure to violent themes and the decline of creative playtime. Studies show excessive screen time results in increased aggression that stays with children as they age. Research Mrs. Galante reviewed also identifies disturbing correlations between unsupervised use of digital media and increased emotional, social and concentration problems in young children.
These harmful effects extend to middle and high school as well. Students have always found ways to waste time and avoid schoolwork, of course; but today’s endless stream of digital distractions and constant, readily accessible stimulation is unprecedented in human history.
Michael Rich, a Harvard professor and director of the Center on Media and Child Health, observes that “the worry is we’re raising a generation of kids in front of screens whose brains are going to be wired differently.” Scientists assert that children’s developing brains are becoming conditioned to distractions and constantly changing activities, rather than focusing.
The scope of researchers’ concerns may have already reached epidemic proportions; we are just starting to see the results of children weaned on screens. Increasingly we hear reports about unanticipated outcomes of our neglect toward our children’s digital diet: stories of teens (mostly girls) exhausted at school after late-night Facebook marathons; universities considering cell phone bans to keep students from texting through lectures and exams; and young people (mostly boys) so consumed by video gaming that their compulsion borders on addiction.
Concerning video games, Travis Linquist, a sixth grade teacher at Almaden Country School, noticed a pattern over the last several years, observing how some of his students’ grades dip precipitously whenever a new video game is released. His concerns center on boys who admit spending hours every day (and all day on weekends) playing video games, including those rated “M” for mature — equivalent to “R”-rated movies due to their violent content, foul language, and mature themes.
Imagine your child absorbing R-rated movies for hours on end, every day — this is the M-rated video game world that hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions of children inhabit.
Mr. Linquist notes that a particularly intense and hugely popular game, the “M”-rated “Call of Duty: Black Ops,” released Nov. 9, sold more than 100 million copies in its first three weeks. As a gamer himself, Mr. Linquist is concerned that parents allow children unsupervised access to games like Black Ops, apparently knowing little about the games’ content and themes. Says Mr. Linquist, “If the same parents heard me using the language their children are hearing and using with these games, they’d want me fired!”
Even a little exposure to video games may impair learning. Research conducted in Germany and published in the journal Pediatrics found that boys who played video games after finishing their homework experienced consistently lower sleep quality and a “significant decline” in their ability to remember vocabulary words. Markus Dworak, one of the principal researchers and a neuroscientist at Harvard, believes that the boys’ learning suffered in part because “the intensity of the game experience overrode the brain’s recording of the vocabulary.”
Some parents view text messaging, social networking, video gaming and Internet surfing as harmless modern replacements for the distractions and time-wasting behaviors of our own childhoods. But as evidence mounts, this increasingly appears an ignorant and shortsighted perspective. If your children don’t fit the problem profiles mentioned above, breathe a sigh of relief. Yet even if our own children are not consumed by one or more digital preoccupations, consider the impact on American society as a generation of young people “wired for distraction” grow up, many finding themselves incapable of focusing or otherwise contributing as productively as they’d like to our economy and culture.
Meanwhile, let’s all look again at our children’s holiday wish lists.
Ole Jorgenson is Head of School at Almaden Country School.
Published in Almaden Times Weekly, Dec, 24, 2010