Homework vs the Incredible Computer Games of Doom

For a long time now various people and institutions have been suggesting that computer games stop kids from learning effectively. Explanations suggested – often assumed – include brain damage, reduction of ability to engage with other people, delay in development of social skills. More recently it has been suggested by Susan Greenfield (blogs covering some of the reports include Ars Technica and Bad Science)that computer use ‘rewires’ kids brains – with a fairly limited amout of evidence – to stop them engaging fully with the details of their lesson content. Now, I must admit that some of my students have a tendancy to print off huge chunks of Wikipedia if they can’t find an exact answer in the first paragraph, but I am working on methods of forcing them to read more carefully to extract detailed information. This has been a problem, I suspect, since kids first copied answers from their parents’ encyclopedias. It’s just easier and faster to do electronically.

Rather than complicated neuroscience, details of changes in brain chemistry and subtle alterations in the stimuli experienced by young children, I find myself delighted that in this case, Ben Goldacre’s common response (as seen here) is wrong; it turns out it might be much simpler than that.

It turns out that when kids are given computer games to play, they spend less time on homework!

This results comes out of a proper study, what we call an RCT. The kids in the study were randomly (that’s the R) allocated to one of two groups. Half got a games console, and half didn’t (the Controls). After four months, results showed that those given the games to play on had stalled in their literacy progress, and diaries kept suggested that this was because they spent more time playing and less time doing relevant activities like reading. As a nice bonus, there wasn’t an effect on maths progress, probably as very few kids would spend time on that at home anyway, even without a distraction.

So it’s not brain damage or ‘rewiring’. It’s just that kids who are busy playing can’t be busy learning. As I’ve suggested on Ed Yong’s blog Not Exactly Rocket Science, where I first found out about the study, perhaps a useful follow-up would be to compare students given a games console with those given the chance for other distracting, non-academic activities such as sports or drama.

I’ll update this post once I’ve had a chance to look into some of the references; in the meantime, the trial itself is reported here.

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