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.

Oh No! Not Blue Monday!

The bad news is, an incredibly bad bit of ‘science’ has once more reared its ugly head. The good news is, the story in the Daily Telegraph here is a fantastic opportunity to teach our students an awful lot about science…

Hilarious update – Cliff is now claiming we should all ignore it and be happy instead, says a different article in the same newspaper!

First of all, it’s based on previous work by Cliff Arnall, who might reasonably be described as a media-whore for repeatedly wasting our time with this sort of inanity. In fact, this is yet another use of his non-science as reported last year by Ben in his excellent column. Cliff has form. The Telegraph really should know better. I tell my students that although not totally reliable, Wikipedia is a good place to start looking for information. That the newspaper have ignored this wealth of evidence suggests they think their readers are idiots.

Apart from anything else, it doesn’t seem that he is currently employed by the University they link him with. Instead he is a self-employed life coach and pilot. Ahem. He managed to find time a few months back to suggest you could work out the formula for the perfect toy. How does he get it all done.

I actually wonder if the Telegraph got all the ideas – some more sensible than others – from the same press release, or if they just decided to save themselves time by cramming as much lousy science and tenuous correlations as they could think of into the same article. I’m actually going to put their suggestions in a list.

  • chocolate is good for you, say Venezuelan endrocrinologists – or, more to the point, the same scientist who has been pushing this idea for the last fifteen years or so.
  • have flowers in the house or garden. Some specific species are mentioned and I think I know why – they happen to be on offer through, yes, the Daily Telegraph
  • use bright morning light, says Vicki Ravell, a sleep researcher who should possibly make her conflicts of interest – she is a paid speaker for a company who make devices designed to simulate bright morning light – clearer in this sort of story. 
  • Cancel meetings, says a business coach (and, as it happens, member of the newspaper’s ‘panel of experts’ for the Readers’ Clinic). Presumably the Telegraph staff have a Monday meeting they’d like to skip. Who doesn’t?
  • Bite a pencil to make you smile
  • Book a holiday – interestingly, it is Richard Wiseman who is quoted here, despite the fact that Cliff Arnall is usually sponsored himself by holiday companies to promote this story each January. The previous ‘biting a pencil’ idea is also referenced in Wiseman’s (excellent) book, 59 Seconds,as is the following:
  • Imagine your own death (says another author)
  • Eat fresh fruit and herbs, specifically those advised by Cherry Chapell, a PR hack who has also written a few books – she is an expert in that she has a collection of Grandma’s Remedies published. Presumably these are what we would call ‘old wives tales’ or ‘anecdotes’.
  • Eat chilli, which among other effects, destroys mitochondria. Hopefully I don’t need to point out that this effect is presumably not relevant when eating it or we would all be in trouble – and if it was, it would be spectacularly bad advice. There seem to be some suggestions that chilli helps prevent cancer as it kills off cancer cells. How healthy cells are not affected presumably remains a mystery.
  • We should eat with fat friends as this prompts us to eat less, according to a report from last year, also reported in the Telegraph and many other newspapers.
  • Listen to music while we exercise to try and get more out of it. Hmm. Well, I have to admit, running in the morning is slightly less painful with loud rock playing (Lost Prophets anyone?), but I found this quite a tenuous link. Until I found out that the expert in question has a compilation CD out to help people try and get more out of exercise. So that would be the science bit then.
  • Be nice to people at work and see if the effects get passed on. Well, can’t hurt.
  • Get more sleep because it will help you lose weight, said a study a few years back. Although how this – and many of the other things – will help you in the course of a single bad day is beyond me…

I can’t help it – let’s do the maths.

Five suggestions that are effectively adverts, six if we count ‘book a holiday’ and four research items that are, quite possibly, a few years old and irrelevant to daily life. Out of thirteen ideas.

Do I need to write this as an equation for people to take my opinion seriously?