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Christopher Mims

A View from Christopher Mims

The Mixed News on Technology's Effects on the Brain

“Technology” is not monolithic, and neither are its positive and negative consequences for children.

  • September 10, 2010

Parents are convinced that violent video games increase aggression in their children. Writers like Steven Johnson, author of Everything Bad is Good For You, are convinced that television, video games and gadgets are in fact making us smarter. A nuanced new review of the literature that just appeared in the journal Neuron (open access) says they’re both right.

The question, it turns out, is not whether or not technology is good for us: The question is, how does it fundamentally change our brains, in ways that can persist for years, for better and for worse.

No blog post is going to do justice to the full breadth of this paper, so you should just go read it. (Did I mention it’s it’s free to access?) This being the Internet, here’s the Cliff’s Notes version, complete with links to the original literature in case you want to take the inevitable comment fight back to the sources.

* Video game consoles are going to make your kids stupider in the following way: owning one will significantly reduce reading and writing skills – “more than one-half of a standard deviation in the case of writing,” says the paper. (source) This is not just a correlation: it has been established (in at least this one study) causatively.

* “Action” video games can produce better surgeons (source) and pilots (source). They also enhance top-down control of attention, allow players to choose among different options more rapidly (source), increase short-term visual memory (source) and increase flexibility in task-switching. NASA has even considered using them to treat attentional problems in children.

* Television is a model for what we can expect from games designed both for entertainment and education. Multiples studies have shown that Sesame Street increases language and numerical ability in children, while Teletubbies actually decreases language ability in very young children. Likewise, the “Baby Einstein” products were also shown to make children less capable. After controlling for other factors, amount of television exposure as a young child does not generally correlate (in either direction) with later abilities - unless it’s trading off with other critical activities (like opportunities to absorb language through normal socialization).

* Many educational games have no positive effect on learning when used in an education context, but a handful have been proven to work - especially in the area of mathematical education. More on this in a later post…

image cc Seth Sawyers

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