kidsvideogamesart01Buying Christmas presents isn’t as simple as getting your kids what they want. Obviously! You always want to steer clear of complete rubbish and try to get something that may help your child develop in some way. Plus it’s got to be fun, right? Nothing wrong with fun. But then, you don’t want your kid sitting in front of a tablet / screen / tv all the time. That’s a big problem. How long is too long for playing video games?

“The negative side of leisure technology is not in what it does provides for us – there are many benefits – it is what it does not provide or what it prevents us from doing.”

Sally Goddard Blythe is the director of the Institute for Neuro-Physiological Psychology in Chester and is addressing the effects of parents using televisions and electronic devices as babysitters. Her book, “What Babies And Children Really Need”, takes few prisoners.

“Interviewers and presenters of children’s programmes do not help. While the former frequently interrupt their interviewees or are forced to cut them short to fit into the time constraints of programming, the latter tend to shout, despite the fact that children’ s hearing is more acute than adults’. Is it surprising that children find it difficult to wait their turn and continue to follow a conversation that lasts for more than a few seconds?”

What’s perhaps less well known is the extent to which it can affect brain development in children.

“Herbert Krugman discovered that TV dampens the activity of the critical left brain within 30 seconds of starting to view. Brain wave activity switches from an alert waking state, associated with increased beta activity to predominant alpha waves, indicating an unfocused, dream like state. “The right brain then becomes highly receptive to images and feelings. Both advertisers and politicians intuitively know how powerful the TV/Brain effect is!” said Martin Large in an article, “Toxic TV? How the TV medium affects children’s learning”. “They both aim to get positive images across whilst knowing that rational arguments are secondary. But from this research, children need help switching off as TV undermines the decision making area of the brain.”

kidsvideogamesart02Studies relating to the average amount of television consumed by children are nothing new, and it wasn’t the first medium to attract such studies. Historical Trends in Research on Children and the Media: 1900-1960 by Ellen Wartella and Byron Reeves “examines research on media effect on children over three epochs: film (1904-1939), radio (1930-1944), and television (1949 through the 1960s). The study observes an overwhelming similarity in the research studies, concluding that earlier studies may have set the agenda for research and that the same concerns exist with each new technology.” And new technology is everywhere.

The ever increasing amount of gadgets available to hand has increased drastically in recent years. Nintendo’s Wii ensured that consoles are no longer restricted to hardcore gamers (with over 8 million consoles sales in the UK alone, and games marketed squarely at the family audience). Wartella and Reeve’s study – written in 1985 – couldn’t have predicted that such a thing as the average mobile phone would double up as a portable gaming device. It’s all too easy to hand Angry Birds to a bored child. This has lead to babysitting duties being extended from the television to many other devices. The consequence of this is that the early years of child development are being affected.

“Hours spent in front of the television, computer or Playstation are sedentary hours. They arouse the brain to various states but they do not exercise the body. There is no physical experience or social interaction. The television is not interested in what a child thinks or what you he or she has to say.”

Goddard Blythe makes a valid point. Television and videogames fully present the child with a scenario – there is no requirement or opportunity for imagination or invention. Also, a videogame responds completely to the child’s directions. The child does not learn the art of compromise, or that, in ‘real life’, they have to wait their turn to speak or interact. They do not encounter situations that allow for real social and emotional development.

“Over use of computers and computer games may also affect the developing visual skills of the young child. Children become good at rapid shifts of visual attention within their field of vision, but hand held computer games do not develop the smooth sequential eye movements needed to follow a line of print without the eyes jumping further along the line, to the line above or the line below.  Children become good at rapidly decoding individual symbols, shapes or “pictures” on a screen, but are not as good at following a series of symbols from left to right and decoding them in an accurate sequence.  This is important for spelling.”

Not everybody agrees. On her website Milestonemom.com (“A therapist’s guide to making milestones happen”), Nancy Konigsberg has detailed what she perceives to be the advantages for physical development in children from playing on videogames. “If you don’t own a gaming system such as Wii, Xbox or Playstation, perhaps it’s time to get one. Although the systems were created with fun in mind, they can be used to help children improve in many areas of development. They can help with focus, attention, balance, coordination, visual-spatial skills, fine motor skills, gross motor skills, motor planning, and visual motor skills. The Wii wireless remote control detects direction and speed of movements, and provides feedback on individual physical ability and performance.”

Goddard Blythe, however, correctly observes that – development wise – emulating an action on a videogame is not the same as carrying out that action for real.

“The Wii may help to improve attention and coordination in a static position, but does not help develop adaptation to a shifting gravitiational base or provide deep proprioceptive feedback in the same way as real experience. For example, when playing tennis using the Wii there is no real weight to the hand held device compared to wielding a real racquet, or strength required to oppose the force when returning the ball. Neither does it help to develop visual accommodation (speed of refocusing between different distances) in the same way that “tracking” a ball coming towards you does.”

Goddard Blythe does concede that “it can help to train some aspects of hand-eye coordination and static balance, both of which are needed to support reading and writing and enable children with disabilities to participate in games which they would not otherwise be able to play”.

It’s clear though, that using videogames as the sole or main tool for child development is a contentious path with few proven benefits.

SALLY GODDARD BLYTHE is Director of the Institute for Neuro-Physiological Psychology in Chester, a research, training and clinical organisation which has pioneered research into the neuroscience of specific learning difficulties. An international authority on remedial programmes, she has authored numerous professional papers and books such as Reflexes, Learning and Behaviour, Attention Balance and Coordination—the ABC of Learning Success, What Babies and Children Really Need and The Well Balanced Child – now widely translated. She is also the author of a screening test and movement programme for schools.