Teens who play video games 'better at maths'
Teens who play video games are better skilled at maths than their peers who only use social media, according to a new study. Our reporter weighs up the pros and cons of growing up in a digital world
A new study brought music to the ears of teenagers worldwide this week when it suggested that playing online video games can boost children's intelligence.
However, in a blow for Facebook fans, it also showed that scrolling through social media sites can hinder academic performance.
Using data from 12,000 Australian 15-year-olds, the study analysed their online habits and compared them with their academic results.
"Students who play online games almost every day score 15 points above the average in maths and 17 points above average in science," said Professor Alberto Posso from the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology.
"Children who regularly use online social networks tend to obtain lower scores in maths, reading and science than students who never or hardly ever use these sites.
"When you play online games, you're solving puzzles to move to the next level and that involves using some of the general knowledge and skills in maths, reading and science that you've been taught during the day. You're not really going to solve problems using Facebook."
Ross Maguire, managing director of LearnIt, a company that runs camps and workshops for children here in Ireland in robotics, mechanical engineering, construction, science and creativity, agrees.
"Too often, kids bully each other on social media, while they build virtual worlds playing online games like 'Minecraft' and 'Spore'," he says. "They also learn fantastic skills like planning and collaborating with a team, things that will stand to them later in life.
"Our own camps and workshops use a combination of Lego, laptops, iPads and software to teach kids how to design, code and create things. These are the engineers of tomorrow, and they get very excited when they experience hands-on just how much fun education can be.
"Coding is a language. It's a compulsory subject in both primary and national schools in the UK, but not yet in Ireland. I hope that will change, and schools will use technology to create, not just to consume."
But before parents go rushing out to buy the latest copy of 'Minecraft' and shut down their kids' Facebook account, an Irish expert urges caution. Senior clinical psychologist and member of the Psychological Society of Ireland, Mark Smyth, says the Australian research is an over-simplification.
"Gamers and those who use social media are not two distinct groups," he says. "These days online video games are set up to interface with social media, so they're interlinked. A kid who gets 50 likes on Facebook for his score in 'Candy Crush' will feel good about himself. And like maths equations, each time they master a level, they move on to the next challenge. TV doesn't offer that reward, because viewers are passive observers."
But when parents hear that games can actually improve their child's school grades while social networks can bring them down, surely they would be advised to have their kids experience good screen time rather than wasting their time on the bad stuff?
"No, 'good' and 'bad' terminology doesn't help," says Smyth. "The truth is that both video games and social media are an integral part of young people's lives. They offer a connection with friends, a way to de-stress, and lots of things that are alien to parents.
"Social media can be very beneficial, especially for children in rural areas who mightn't have easy access to friends, and gaming can develop problem-solving skills, language and strategic thinking.
"The single biggest negative effect is the length of time kids spend online."
The World Health Organisation recommends no more than two hours screen time a day for children - and that includes phones, tablets, laptops, computers, TV and other devices. The reality is usually wide of the mark.
A Kaiser Family Foundation survey in the US found that children aged from eight to 18 averaged seven hours and 38 minutes of screen time a day; that's more than most adults spend in a full-time job. Yet for the kids themselves, it's not a problem.
"If I was a parent I'd rather know my son was in his room playing and not going out getting sloshed," argues one 14-year-old with what he considers impeccable logic.
On the other side is a mother who says, "I worry about my son playing video games. When I shut the game off, he freaks out. I don't know what to do."
"The problems begin when kids stay up all night playing online with others in a different time zone, like America, for instance," continues Smyth. "They play all night and sleep all day. I've seen extreme cases where children play till 5am and end up dropping out of school. But it only gets to that level if boundaries are not put in place at the start."
Those boundaries include issues like how much time the child is allowed to be online, which sites they may use (experts recommend that children under the age of 13 shouldn't have social media accounts) and what games are not allowed. If they cross those boundaries, the punishment should fit the offence.
"One girl's parents who removed her phone and didn't say whether she'd ever get it back commented, 'Even prisoners in Mountjoy know when they're getting out'. We need to understand the effects of such sanctions.
"If a kid knows that, okay, if I mess up I lose the phone for two days, but I'll get it back, that's okay. But if they think their parents might take the phone away completely, or cut off the WiFi, they'll clam up, and we lose that relationship," adds Smyth. "We need our kids to tell us if they see something online that makes them feel anxious. Above all, we need to keep the lines of communication open."
For information, visit learnit.ie