Published on January 7, 2012 by Peter Gray in Freedom to Learn
Quite a few parents have asked me about the advisability of limiting their children's computer play. Others
have told me that they do limit computer play or total daily "screen time," in a tone that seemed to
suggest that any reasonable parent would do that.
People who have been reading my articles can probably guess my reaction. I have a very high opinion of
children's abilities to make good choices about how to use their free time, as long as they really have
choices. Some children go through long periods of doing what seems like just one thing, and then some adults
think there's something wrong, because they (the adults) would not make that choice. But in my experience, if
kids are really free to play and explore in lots of different ways, and they end up playing or exploring in
what seems to be just one way, then they are doing that because they are getting something really meaningful
out of it. For a nice example of this, you might watch the film on the home page of the Sudbury Valley School website, where a young man describes his year of doing
almost nothing but computer play.
It is always a mistake, I think, to tell children what they should or should not do, except in those cases
where you are telling them that they should do their share of the chores around the house or should not do
things that hurt you or other people. Whenever we prevent our kids from playing or exploring in the ways they
prefer, we place another brick in a barrier between them and us. We are saying, in essence, "I don't
trust you to control your own life." Children are suffering today not from too much computer play or too
much screen time. They are suffering from too much adult control over their lives and not enough freedom (see essay on rise of depression and anxiety).
|Children who are really free know what is best for them, especially concerning how they
should spend their free time. Every child is different, just as every adult is, and we can't get into their
heads and find out just what they are getting out of something that we don't understand. I know well a child
who, for years, spent hours per day watching television shows that I thought were really disgustingly dumb;
but, over time, I discovered that she was getting a lot out of them. They were making her think in new ways.
She understood all the ways in which the shows were dumb, at least as well as I did; but she also saw ways in
which they were smart, and she analyzed them and learned from them. They contributed greatly to her abilities
as an actress (she eventually had major parts in high-school plays), because she acted out the parts
vicariously, in her mind, as she watched. They also contributed to her fascination with certain aspects of
human psychology. She now wants to go into clinical psychology as a career.
I've also known kids who spent huge amounts of time reading - just sitting and reading, "doing
nothing!" for maybe 10 hours a day. There were always some kids like that, even when I was a kid. I could
never understand why they would want to just sit and read when they could go fishing with me instead. What a
waste of time. However, I've never known a parent to limit their child's reading time. Why is it any better to
limit TV or computer time than to limit book-reading time? Why do we worry about a child spending maybe 4 or 5
hours a day at a computer screen, doing what he wants to do, but don't worry about the same child sitting at
school for 6 hours a day and then doing homework for another couple of hours - doing what others are forcing
him to do? I ask you to consider the possibility that the child is learning more valuable lessons at the
computer than at school, in part because the computer activity is self-chosen and the school activity is not.
Computers are the most important tools of modern society. Why would we limit a child's opportunities to
play with them?
Why would we want to limit a child's computer time? The computer is, without question, the single most
important tool of modern society. Our limiting children's computer time would be like hunter-gatherer adults
limiting their children's bow-and-arrow time. Children come into the world designed to look around and figure
out what they need to know in order to make it in the culture into which they are born. They are much better
at that than adults are. That's why they learn language so quickly and learn about the real world around them
so much faster than adults do. That's why children of immigrant families pay more attention to the language
spoken by their new peers, in the new culture, than to the old language spoken by their parents. That's also
why, whenever there's a new technological innovation, kids learn how to use it more quickly than their parents
do. They know, instinctively, what they must learn in order to succeed.
Why do we keep hearing warnings from "authorities" - including the American Academy of
Pediatricians - that we must limit children's computer play? Some of the fear mongering comes, I think, from a
general tendency on the part of us older folks to distrust any new media. Plato, in The Republic,
argued that plays and poetry should be banned because of their harmful effects on the young. When writing came
about and became technically easier, and was enthusiastically seized upon by the young, some of their elders
warned that this would rot their minds; they would no longer have to exercise their memories. When printed
novels became available to the masses, many warned that these would lead the young, especially girls and young
women, to moral degeneracy. When televisions began to appear in people's homes, all sorts of dire warnings
were sounded about the physical, psychological, and social damage they would cause.
Video games have been under attack by the fear-mongers ever since they first appeared, and the attacks have
not diminished. If you Google around the Internet using harmful effects of video games as a search
phrase, you will find all sorts of frightening claims. One site warns that video games can cause depression,
physical aggression, poor sleep, somatic complaints, obesity, attention disorders, and ... the list went on.
The only malady they seemed to have left out was housemaid's knee.
The most common complaints about video games are that they (1) are socially isolating, (2) reduce
opportunities for outdoor activities and thereby lead to obesity and poor physical health, and (3) promote
violence in children, if the games have violent content. On the face of it, of course, the first two of these
claims should be truer of book reading than of video gaming. Concerning the third claim, I don't see any
obvious reason why pretend murder of animated characters in video games should be any more likely to provoke
real murder than, say, reading Shakespeare's account of Hamlet's murder of his stepfather. Yet we make kids
read Hamlet in school.
Research refutes the frightening myths about harmful effects of computer games.
|If you look into the actual research literature, you find very little if any evidence
supporting the fear-mongers claims, and considerable evidence against those claims. In fact, systematic
surveys have shown that regular video-game players are, if anything, more physically fit, less likely to be
obese, more likely to also enjoy outdoor play, more socially engaged, more socially well-adjusted, and more
civic minded than are their non-gaming peers.1 A large-scale study in four cities in Holland showed
- contrary to what I assume was the initial hypothesis - that children who had a computer and/or a television
set in their own room were significantly more likely to play outside than were otherwise similar children who
didn't have such easy and private access to screen play.2 A study by the Pew Research Center
concluded that video games, far from being socially isolating, serve to connect young people with their peers
and to society at large.3 Other research has documented, qualitatively, the many ways that video
games promote social interactions and friendships.4 Kids make friends with other gamers, both in
person and online. They talk about their games with one another, teach one another strategies, and often play
together, either in the same room or online.
Concerning violence, meta-analyses of the many studies designed to find effects of violent video games on
real-world violence have concluded that, taken as a whole, there is precious little or no evidence at all of
such effects.5 It's interesting, also, to note that over the decades in which violent video gaming
has been steadily rising, there has been a steady and large decline in real-world violence by youth.6
I'm not about to claim that the decline in real-world violence is in any significant way caused by the rise in
violent video games, but, there is some evidence that playing such games helps people learn how to control
their hostility. In one experiment, college students were presented with a frustrating mental task and then
were assessed for their feelings both of depression and hostility. The significant finding was that regular
players of violent video games felt less depressed and less hostile 45 minutes after the frustrating
experience than did otherwise similar students who didn't play such games.7
I have to admit that I personally hate graphic depictions of violence, in games or anywhere else, but I
claim no moral virtue in that. I'm just squeamish. My wife and step-kids, who are every bit as nonviolent in
real life as I am, tease me about it. They talk about screening movies for me, and they have gotten used to
going to certain movies without me.
Video games have been shown to have many positive effects on brainpower.
Quite a few well-controlled research studies have documented positive effects of video games on mental
development. Repeated experiments have shown that playing fast-paced action video games can quite markedly
increase players' scores on tests of visuospatial ability, including tests that are used as components of
standard IQ tests.8 Other studies suggest that, depending on the type of game, video games can also
increase scores on measures of working memory (the ability to hold several items of information in mind at
once), critical thinking, and problem solving.9 In addition, there is growing evidence that
children who previously showed little interest in reading and writing are now acquiring advanced literacy
skills through the text-based communication in on-line video games.10
When children are asked, in focus groups and surveys, what they like about video games, they generally talk
about freedom, self-direction, and competence.11 In the game, they make their own decisions and
strive to meet challenges that they themselves have chosen. At school and in other adult-dominated contexts
they may be treated as idiots who need constant direction, but in the game they are in charge and can solve
difficult problems and exhibit extraordinary skills. In the game, age does not matter, but skill does. In
these ways, video games are like all other forms of true play.
The special benefits of MMORPGs
Over time, video games have become increasingly complex and multifaceted. Perhaps the most interesting
games today are the so-called Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Games (MMORPGs), such as World of
Warcraft, which are even more social than were previous video games and offer endless opportunities for
creativity and problem solving.12
In these online games, players create a character (an avatar), which has unique physical and psychological
traits and assets, and, with that character, enter a complex and exciting virtual world that is simultaneously
occupied by countless other players, who in their real-life forms may be sitting anywhere on the planet.
Players go on quests within this virtual world, and along the way they meet other players, who might become
friends or foes. Players may start off playing solo, avoiding others, but to advance to the higher levels they
have to make friends and join with others in mutual quests. Making friends within the game requires
essentially the same skills as making friends in the real world. You can't be rude. You have to understand the
etiquette of the culture you are in and abide by that etiquette. You have to learn about the goals of a
potential friend and help that individual to achieve those goals. Depending on how you behave, players may put
you on their friends list or their ignore list, and they may communicate positive or negative information
about you to other players. The games offer players endless opportunities to experiment with different
personalities and ways of behaving, in a fantasy world where there are no real-life consequences for failing.
Players in these games can also join special-interest groups called guilds. To join a guild, a player (or,
more accurately, the player's avatar) must fill out an application form, much like a job application,
explaining why he or she would be a valuable member. Guilds generally have structures that are similar to
companies in the real world, with leaders, executive boards, and even recruitment personnel. Such games are,
in many ways, like the imaginative sociodramatic games of young children, but played in a virtual world, with
communication by online text, and raised up many notches in sophistication to fit the interests and abilities
of the older children, teenagers, and adults who play them. Like all sociodramatic games, they are very much
anchored in an understanding of the real world, and they exercise concepts and social skills that are quite
relevant to that world. In fact, a study commissioned by the IBM Corporation concluded that the leadership
skills exercised within MMORPGs are essentially the same as those required to run a modern company.13
So, to those who want my opinion about whether they should or shouldn't limit their kids' computer play, my
answer is shouldn't.
Note to readers: What is your opinion? What experiences have you or your kids had with such play? Do you
know of any good research that would justify a decision to prevent kids from playing video games to their hearts'
Post comments and questions on this article at Dr. Gray's blog.
1 See: (a) Wack & Trantleff-Dunn (2009), "relationship between electronic game play,
obesity, and psychosocial functioning in young men; CyberPsychology & Behavior, 12, 241-244; (b) Williams et
al (2008), "Who plays, how much, and why? Debunking the stereotypical gamer profile; Journal of Computer
Mediated Communication, 13, 993-1018; (c) Durkin & Barber (2002); "Not so doomed: Computer game play and
positive adolescent development," Applied Developmental Psychology, 23, 373-392.
2 Aarts et al. (2010). "Environmental determinants of outdoor play in children: A large-scale
cross-sectional study." American Journal of Preventive Medicine, 39, 212-219.
3 Lenhart et al. (2008). "Teens, video games and civics: Teens gaming experiences are diverse
and include significant social interactions and civic engagements," report of the Pew Research Center.
4 (a) Olson, C. K. (2010). Children's motivation for video game play in the context of normal
development. Review of General Psychology, 14, 180-187; (b) Stevens et al. (2008). "In-game, in-room,
in-world: reconnecting video game play to the rest of kids' lives." pp 41-66 in K. Salen (Ed.), The ecology
of games: Connecting youth, games, and learning. The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation series on
digital media and learning. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
5 Ferguson, C. (2010). Blazing angels or resident evil? Can violent video games be a force for good?
Review of General Psychology, 14, 68-81.
6 Ferguson (2010).
7 Ferguson, C., & Rueda, S. M. (2010). The Hitman study: Violent video game exposure effects on
aggressive behavior, hostile feelings, and depression. European Psychologist, 15, 99-108.
8 (a) Green, C. S., & Bavelier, D. (2003). Action video game modifies visual selective
attention. Nature, 423, 534-537; (b) Spence, I., & Feng, J. (2010). Video games and spatial cognition. Review
of General Psychology, 14, 92-104.
9 Akilli, G. K. (2007) Games and simulations: A new approach in education? In D. Gibson, C. Aldrich,
& M. Prensky (Eds.), Games and simulations in online learning: Research and development frameworks (pp. 1-20).
Hershey, PA: Information Science.
10 Black, R. W., & Steinkuehler, C. (2009). Literacy in virtual worlds. In L. Christenbury, R.
Bomer, & P. Smargorinsky (Eds.), Handbook of adolescent literacy research (pp. 271-286). New York: Guilford.
11 (a) McLoed, L., & Lin, L. (2010). A child' power in game-play. Computers & Education, 54,
517-527; (b) Olson, C. K. (2010). Children's motivation for video game play in the context of normal development.
Review of General Psychology, 14, 180-187; (c) Przybylski, A. K., Weinstein, N., Ryan, R. M., & Rigby, C. S.
(2009). Having versus wanting to play: Background and consequences of harmonious versus obsessive engagement in
video games. CyberPsychology & Behavior, 12, 485-492.; (d) Yee, N. (2006). Motivations for play in online
games. Cyberpsychology & Behavior, 9, 772-775.
12 Barnett, J., & Coulson, M. (2010). Virtually real: A psychological perspective on massively
multiplayer online games. Review of General Psychology, 14, 167-179.
13 Reaves, B., & Malone, T. W. (2007). Leadership in games and work: Implications for the
enterprise of massively multiplayer online role-playing games. Seriosity, Inc. Published online.
Peter Gray, Ph.D., a research
professor of psychology at Boston College, is a specialist in developmental and evolutionary psychology. He is the
author of an introductory textbook, Psychology, and Free to
Learn, a book about children's natural ways of educating themselves, and how adults can help (Basic Books,
2013). For more information and articles, visit his blog Freedom to Learn.
© Peter Gray, Reprinted with permission of the author.
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