The few glimpses I have had of video games, courtesy of young relatives, have left me with the impression that one needs a very agile mind, able to constantly react to developments in the game and make instant decisions. Does that mean they are good for training children to pay attention?
Not necessarily. It seems to depend on what you mean by “attention”. Some studies have found that playing video games can improve visual attention in the way I have mentioned. But a new study published by the American Psychological Association suggests that they can simultaneously make kids more impulsive and less able to concentrate, or give close attention. In fact, impulsive and inattentive kids tend to play more video games in the first place.
Lead author, Douglas A Gentile, who is a world authority on media and children, says that “most research on attention problems has focused on biological and genetic factors rather than environmental factors” in attention problems. Hence the importance of the new study, conducted over three years among more than 3000 children, ages 8 to 17, at schools in Singapore. The children completed questionnaires in grades three and four, and seven and eight, as well as psychological tests.
Regarding attention, the children answered questions such as how often they “fail to give close attention to details or make careless mistakes” in their work or “blurt out answers before questions have been completed.” For the impulsivity test, they selected points they felt described themselves, such as “I often make things worse because I act without thinking” or “I concentrate easily.”
The study described attention problems as having a difficult time engaging in or sustaining behavior to reach a goal, particularly when the subject is difficult or boring.
For “difficult or boring” read “some aspect of real life” — seldom as exciting as a video game although it is more meaningful and satisfying in the long run.
Violent videos (Gentile’s specialty) are also linked with impulsivity and attention problems, but in the new study length of time spent playing games was the critical factor, regardless of gender, race or socio-economic status.