This year, the World Health Organisation added “gaming disorder” to its International Classification of Diseases. The entry states that a proportion of people who play video games do so to the exclusion of other daily activities. What’s more, they become unaware of changes in their physical or psychological health that could be linked to their gaming addiction.
This idea of a link between computer addiction and mental health will be familiar territory for teachers – many have long suspected that staying up late to play the latest first-person shooter has a detrimental effect on kids. And the perceived damage has extended to an assumption that the amount of time a student spends looking at a computer screen at home correlates with their performance in class.
News articles often add ballast to this theory. “Video game use linked to worse GCSEs, study suggests,” read one BBC headline. “School texts parents about Fortnite telling them to BAN the wildly popular game at home as it’s causing ‘big problems’,” declared The Sun earlier this year.
Such is the weight of anecdotal accounts that you might think there was hard evidence somewhere to back up the claim that playing computer games harms learning. But according to Andrew Przybylski, associate professor, senior research fellow and director of research at the University of Oxford’s Internet Institute, the evidence to suggest any negative effect of video games on school grades is far from compelling.
“Do you know about the bullshit asymmetry principle?” he asks. “It’s also known as Brandolini’s law, after the guy who came up with it, and it states that the amount of energy required to refute bullshit is an order of magnitude larger than that which is required to generate it. It is kind of an extension of the old quote about how lies can get around the world before the truth puts on its shoes.”
Tech on the line
Przybylski applies this law to the “myth” that children who use technology more in their spare time than others will necessarily perform worse academically.
“It probably is bullshit,” he says. “There’s a lot of really sensible reasons from a lot of different perspectives to be concerned about this link, and to pay attention to it, and there are certainly good reasons to study it. But there is so much hyperbole and so little good evidence. Also, of the evidence that does exist, a lot of it is so directly conflicting that it’s hard to draw conclusions.”
Looking at recent research confirms this. A study by the National Children’s Bureau in Northern Ireland, involving 600-plus 14- to 16-year-olds tracked over a two-year period, found that 41 per cent of those who used portable video game devices at least twice a day achieved five or more GCSE A*-C grades compared with 77 per cent of those who used them less than once a week – although the research did not claim a causal link.
Meanwhile, a study of 12,000 Australian high-school students found that those who played online video games tended to fare better in science, maths and reading tests than those who did not.
And research published this year in the journal Psychology of Popular Media Culture found “negligible effects of the time spent on computer games on grades or competence development”. In short, there was some connection, but not enough of a link to make any difference to academic performance.
“There is no good evidence [to prove] that if children spend too much time on their iPad at home, they are going to struggle in school,” summarises Przybylski. “There are some studies that show kids or college students who spend loads of time playing video games might get lower marks, but the correlation is very small.
“When you go back and test the kids on the basics, they don’t look any different. It is just that their grade point average is lower because they are spending a load of time playing video games that they could theoretically have spent studying. It isn’t having an effect on their ability. But there isn’t good evidence of anything actually changing – anything about ‘brain change’ is nonsense.”
Przybylski is also sceptical about focusing on “screen time” and its relation to performance, since technology is not the only thing that can keep students from their work.
“We don’t talk about book time or newspaper time. We don’t talk about food time,” he points out. “We break these concepts down, and this is part of what is missing in the research about technology.”
Some of the blame for the prevalence of misleading stories lies at the door of journalists, Przybylski says – if they were doing their jobs properly, they would look at whether the studies they wrote about were suitably transparent, had a pre-registered hypothesis and made their data available.
“I sometimes feel the time I spend thinking about this issue is time squandered,” Przybylski says, “because it doesn’t really matter how many times you tell a science journalist this … they will still jump at the next university press release or book release that sloppily makes a collage out of our anxieties as parents and educators, based on some of the flimsiest social-science data that you could imagine, and write a story.
“We have a situation where something gets proposed, like ‘violent video games are linked to crime’ or ‘brain-training games lead to later onset of Alzheimer’s’, or something like that, and it gets hyped up. But when academics really try to scratch at it … they wind up having to pour cold water on these kinds of claims.”
There is just as little evidence to suggest that gaming is beneficial, though, claims Przybylski. He points to “a bunch of studies that are meant to link fast-paced action video games to different kinds of reasoning or spatial skills” as being another area rich with hyperbole, adding: “Unfortunately, these studies don’t demonstrate what you would call generalised learning.”
Screening the evidence
Amid such conflicting findings, how can teachers and heads work out what to do regarding screen time – and should they be doing anything at all? Przybylski suggests conducting some basic checks on the research. “The first thing teachers should make sure of is that you can read the study itself – not just a reporter’s take on it,” he says. “If you are reading a press release or a book release or a charity’s report, these are all giant warning signs that you are being had.”
Przybylski adds that if a headteacher were to consider rules on technology use, they should first “look for and demand research from publications that are peer-reviewed, that they can actually read, and that have open data and pre-registration” – meaning that any hypotheses were declared in advance of the research. “If not, what you are probably reading is an advertisement, and whether or not you are going to listen to it will say more about your pre-existing biases as a person than whether it is correct or not.”
Unfortunately, he adds, research in education is particularly susceptible to poor practice, so he warns that a search for conclusive answers on this topic may prove futile.
“I promise you that economics and political science are significantly worse than education, and neuroscience is a basket case, but it is really critical in education because we are dealing with children’s futures. If we buy into what is said without being critical, we are doing our students and their parents no favours.”
Chris Parr is a freelance journalist
Meet the academic
Andrew Przybylski is associate professor, senior research fellow and director of research at the Oxford Internet Institute, a “multidisciplinary research and teaching department dedicated to the social science of the internet” in the University of Oxford.
Przybylski is an experimental psychologist whose research focuses on applying psychological models of motivation and health to the study of how people interact with virtual environments, including video games and social media.
Find out more
* Gnambs, T, Stasielowicz, L, Wolter, I et al (2018) “Do computer games jeopardize educational outcomes? A prospective study on gaming times and academic achievement”, Psychology of Popular Media Culture, https://doi.org/10.31234/osf.io/2s8rv
* ICT and Me (2015) National Children’s Bureau of Northern Ireland
* Posso, A (2016) “Internet usage and educational outcomes among 15-year-old Australian students”, International Journal of Communication, 10: 3851-76
* Przybylski, A K, Wang, J C (2016) “A large-scale test of the gaming-enhancement hypothesis”, PeerJ, https://doi.org/10.7717/peerj.2710
* Simons, D, Boot, W, Charness, N et al (2016) “Do ‘brain-training’ programs work?”, Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 17/3: 103-86
* McGonigal, J (2016) SuperBetter: the power of living gamefully (Penguin Books)
* Madigan, J (2018) “Podcast 33: using games to develop mental skills”, The Psychology of Video Games