Gaming or Impulsiveness, Chicken or Egg?

By Jaclyn Zubrzycki — March 15, 2012 1 min read
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As video games have taken a place not only in suburban basements but in the world of high art, their impact on the children and adults who play them is still debated.

Video games have been linked to attention in several ways: They’ve been shown to improve players’ visual attention, or ability to focus on relevant objects while ignoring what’s irrelevant, but they’ve also been linkedto a decline in the ability to remain focused on tasks at school.

In“Video Game Playing, Attention Problems, and Impulsiveness: Evidence of Bidirectional Causality,” published in the American Psychological Association’s Psychology of Popular Media Culture journal, researchers Douglas A. Gentile and Edward Swing from Iowa State University joined with Choon Guan Lin of the Institute of Mental Health in Singapore and Angeline Khoo of Singapore’s National Institute of Education to examine the relationship between video games, attention, and impulse control. They found that students who spend more time playing video games are likely to have more attention problems later on, and that students whose surveys showed high degrees of impulsiveness or attention disorders are likely to subsequently play more video games.

More than 3,000 Singaporean children, ages 8 to 17, were surveyed annually over three years about their video game use and their attention and impulsivity habits. The attention-related questions were drawn from a standardized scale for rating symptoms of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. The researchers also looked at students’ performance in school and demographic factors such as gender and family-income level, and at the relationship between attention and the violence of the video games played (determined by the frequency with which “creatures” and other players were killed). Attention problems and impulsiveness were more associated with time spent playing video games than with demographic factors or the degree to which the games contained violent content. So it seems that playing Tetris is no better than playing Grand Theft Auto III (at least in terms of attention span).

The researchers frame their work in the context of the research literature on attention problems, saying:

“For the past 30 years, most of the research on attention problems has focused on biological and genetic factors rather than on environmental factors. This allowed for rapid advances in drug therapies, but has also caused many researchers and members of the general public to assume that impulsivity and attention problems were not modifiable by experience. This is unfortunate, as it means we have only focused on part of the solution.”

I wrote recently about a shortage in medication used to treat ADHD; this study is a good reminder that other factors may be at play for kids with the disorder.

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Inside School Research blog.