MONDAY, July 5, 2010 (Health.com) — Parents who believe that playing video games is less harmful to their kids’ attention spans than watching TV may want to reconsider—and unplug the Xbox. Video games can sap a child’s attention just as much as the tube, a new study suggests.
Elementary school children who play video games more than two hours a day are 67% more likely than their peers who play less to have greater-than-average attention problems, according to the study, which appears in the journal Pediatrics.
Playing video games and watching TV appear to have roughly the same link to attention problems, even though video games are considered a less passive activity, the researchers say.
“Video games aren’t less likely than television to be related to attention problems,” says the lead author of the study, Edward Swing, a doctoral candidate in the department of psychology at Iowa State University, in Ames. “They were at least as strong as television at predicting attention problems.’
However, the study doesn’t prove that video games directly cause attention problems. It could be that kids who have short attention spans to begin with might be more likely to pick up a joystick than a book, for instance.
The relationship between video games and attention is probably a two-way street, Swing says. “It wouldn’t surprise me if children who have attention problems are attracted to these media, and that these media increase the attention problems,” he says.
Swing and his colleagues followed more than 1,300 children in the third, fourth, and fifth grades for a little over a year. The researchers asked both the kids and their parents to estimate how many hours per week the kids spent watching TV and playing video games, and they assessed the children’s attention spans by surveying their schoolteachers.
Previous studies have examined the effect of TV or video games on attention problems, but not both. By looking at video-game use as well as TV watching, Swing and his colleagues were able to show for the first time that the two activities have a similar relationship to attention problems.
C. Shawn Green, PhD, a postdoctoral associate in the department of psychology at the University of Minnesota, in Minneapolis, points out that the study doesn’t distinguish between the type of attention required to excel at a video game and that required to excel in school.
“A child who is capable of playing a video game for hours on end obviously does not have a global problem with paying attention,” says Green, who has researched video games but was not involved in the current study. “The question, then, is why are they able to pay attention to a game but not in school? What expectancies have the games set up that aren’t being delivered in a school setting?”
Next page: Do video games make schoolwork seem dull?