Are Video Games and Social Networks the New MMR?

I know at least some of the experts quoted in this Daily Mail article are worth listening to, as they join the video games and social networks are making our kids stupid chorus (alarmist title of the week: “Social websites harm children’s brains: Chilling warning to parents from top neuroscientist”).

But there’s a lot in this article that just doesn’t pass a basic smell test.

There’s this, for example:

Educational psychologist Jane Healy believes children should be kept away from computer games until they are seven. Most games only trigger the ‘flight or fight’ region of the brain, rather than the vital areas responsible for reasoning.

My 4th-grade daughter loves a beat-em-up game called Castle Crashers, in which there is very very little problem solving. You wander around and find things, but it’s pretty random, and mostly you fight. So maybe Healy is right about the fight or flight in that instance.

Except it’s really narrowly conceived. When my daughter plays Castle Crashers, she runs back and forth between the X-Box and the internet-connected laptop. She watches YouTube videos on where to find different “animal orbs” and how to beat certain boss scenarios with different button combos. She cracks me up, because she actually takes notes, in a notebook, and brings it back to the game. She reads forums. She joins XBox live games with other kids where the other kids act as guides and teach new corners of the game.

In fact, if I were going to name the thing where my daughter has most clearly adopted a winning learning strategy, it wouldn’t be anything in her schoolwork. It would be how she goes about figuring out how to get those Castle Crashers animal orbs.

My six year old doesn’t play (by choice, not rule), but loves to watch others play. And she’s constantly asking questions — why did you just get more health? Can you use the shovel here? She makes suggestions that are sometimes brilliant “Katie — use the bow and arrow so they can’t get to you!” She likes to say “It’s a video game for you, and a movie for me!” which is pretty cute, but it’s a movie for her in which she is a stickler for a coherent model of causality. It’s hard for me to imagine a more intellectual undertaking than trying to deduce the rules of the game as a viewer.

I always wonder when I read things like the Mail article — do these researchers take into account the broader context — how do they do their studies? Attach some sensors in a lab and give the kids Pac Man, with no internet connection, no friends, no headset? Because that’s what it starts to sound like. The researchers on these topics often seem to me like the aliens in Slaughterhouse Five, studying humans in a glass dome.

Ok, all fine and good. Difference of opinion. But here’s where it gets ugly. In a week where we are still reeling from revelations that sloppy and in some cases dishonest science caused a generation of parents of autistic children to turn their pain and suffering into a crusade against vaccines, a crusade that resulted in the deaths of kids — in a week like this, Susan Greenfield, a prominent neurologist, has the gall to go wide with the implications:

She pointed out that autistic people, who usually find it hard to communicate, were particularly comfortable using computers.

‘Of course, we do not know whether the current increase in autism is due more to increased awareness and diagnosis of autism, or whether it can – if there is a true increase – be in any way linked to an increased prevalence among people of spending time in screen relationships. Surely it is a point worth considering,’ she added.

That sentence was delivered to the House of Lords, just as 10 years ago other “we don’t really know x, but lets speculate…” statements were given to Rep. Dan Burton’s committee in the U.S. House on the possibility of the MMR vaccine causing autism.

How tone-deaf does a researcher have to be to go there again? Given the recent history of this issue, and the context Greenfield’s delivery, it’s just an incredibly irresponsible statement.

In fact, the most “chilling” thing in this article is that a prominent neuroscientist testifying before governmental body introduced that statement with an anecdote about talking to a teacher, and decided not to end the statement directly after the phrase “we don’t know.” That, not video game use, is the thing most likely to keep *me* up at night.


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