Video games and social networking sites have been accused of adversely affecting the social skills of teenagers and potentially leading to violent crime.
But, in fact, teenagers who spend all their time on the computer could be contributing to a national reduction in crime rates, academics claim.
Researchers from Nottingham Trent University examined whether the length of time students spend in front of a computer screen may affect their propensity to become involved in crime. Their findings are published in the latest edition of the journal Education and Health.
The researchers point out that teenagers today have never known a world without the internet, mobile phones and interactive television, so they tend to trust technology much more than their parents and teachers. This, the academics say, has had both positive and negative effects.
The most commonly mentioned negative effect of overexposure to video games is increased aggression, coupled with a desensitisation to extreme violence. Such games can also lead to medical impairments such as repetitive strain injury, obesity and photosensitive epilepsy.
"There is certainly evidence that, when taken to excess, video game playing can in some cases become addictive," the researchers say. "Especially online video gaming, where the game never pauses or ends, and which has the potential to be a 247 activity."
But such effective distraction, the academics suggest, may have positive implications in other areas of life. "The very reasons why video games may be of benefit therapeutically may also be applied to video games in a crime-reduction context," they say. "The playing of video games is so cognitively distracting that there is little time to do or think about anything else."
The academics point out that crime rates have fallen in recent years. While there are several reasons for this - including increasingly sophisticated policing techniques and improved technology - they suggest another cause: keeping people busy keeps them out of trouble.
"All that time spent online must equate to less time on the street, leading to less potential offending time, and a smaller population of available victims of violence and robbery ... resulting in an overall drop in high-volume crime rates," they argue.
In addition, teen crime is often a response to boredom. Entertainment venues such as cinemas and shopping centres tend to require publicly acceptable behaviour. As a result, teenagers may feel unable to express themselves freely, and become bored and restless. Social networking sites, however, allow for free teenage expression - countering boredom, and leading to a reduction in crime.
"The key to such changes is the technology of everyday life," the researchers say.
Yet they point out that the internet has also opened up a new vista of criminal possibility: cyber-crime allows teenagers to break the law without leaving their homes.
But, the academics say, while we hear much about the potentially harmful effects of video games, little is said about their benefits. Previous research has proven that because of the cognitive and motor skills required, video games can prove effective "distractors", useful in managing pain.
The research detailed the case of one eight-year-old boy, suffering from dermatitis, who was given a handheld video game to prevent him from picking and scratching at his face. Previous treatments had failed, but within two weeks of starting the video game treatment, the affected area had healed.
Another study found that children who were allowed to play with video games while undergoing chemotherapy required fewer painkillers than those who were not.
WHY VIDEO GAMES LEAD TO A REDUCTION IN CRIME
Fewer potential offenders are misusing alcohol or drugs as a result of boredom, because they have escaped the boredom of real life for the drama and action of cyberspace.
Teenagers are staying at home to play video games, leaving fewer potential offenders and victims on the streets.
Because teenagers stay home to play video games, houses are not left empty and thus vulnerable to burglary. The same applies to the internet generally: because more people are now able to work remotely, fewer homes are left empty during the day.
Gaming prowess and the concomitant reputation may prove an effective substitute for prowess and reputation in the real world.
Griffiths, M.D. and Sutton, M., "Proposing the Crime Substitution Hypothesis: Exploring the possible causal relationship between excessive adolescent video-game playing, social networking and crime reduction", Education and Health, 311: 17-21.
Education and Health journal.
Mark D Griffiths, Nottingham Trent University.
Mike Sutton, Nottingham Trent University.