Six Lines

Science and Screen Time

Posted by Aaron Massey on 09 Aug 2016.

Pokémon Go appears to be the perfect parental Rorschach Test. If you’re inclined to think that your kids need to get out more, it’s a wonderful game that encourages socialization. If you’re inclined to think that your kids spend too much time on “screens” and don’t want them to be subject to predatory free-to-play games, then Pokémon Go is clearly something that should be banned from the house.

As a scientist, I’m regularly disappointed with the “rigor” journalists use in presenting scientific material. Perhaps I am just naturally skeptical, but even as a kid I never understood how the press could possibly report that eggs (or coffee) were good for you one year and bad for you the next. The most recent example of this is flossing:

For decades, the federal government — not to mention your dentist — has insisted that daily flossing is necessary to prevent cavities and gums so diseased that your teeth fall out.

Turns out, all that flossing may be overrated.

That was published in the New York Times. Amazing, right? This is, of course, completely and utterly wrong.

Science is hard, particularly for things affecting people. In May, Time wrote about a study examining a possible link between cell phones and cancer. Cell phones. Those things we’ve been using for over 20 years. We still can’t definitively determine whether they increase the risk for cancer in humans. Some studies find a link, some don’t. What should the public take from this sort of reporting? Should we eat eggs, floss, and call someone to figure out if they cancel one another out?

So it’s surprising to me that some people are so certain that Pokémon Go is awesome or terrible. How could we possibly know anything definitive about an augmented reality game just weeks after it’s been released? The worst of this type of reporting simply uses Pokémon Go as an opportunity to bang their favorite drum: screen time.

Pokémon Go was created as an augmented reality game. Here’s the actual reality: Most kids today spend the majority of the school year with their brain already in a state of stress, and staring at a screen while trying to hurl Poké balls at Mewtwo further activates the fight, flight or freeze part of the brain. Even though a child may be playing this game outside, his brain is functioning in the exact same way it would if he were spending hours in an arcade. The only difference is now he needs sunscreen.

Children are in a constant state of “fight, flight or freeze” while playing Pokémon Go, seriously? I suppose you have some sort of Stockholm Syndrome-style explanation for why they seem to enjoy it so much?

Or wait, you said it was like spending hours in an arcade, which is something huge numbers of people have been doing for decades. But it’s only now that we’re discovering how detrimental that sort of activity is? If this sort of thing crippled your ability to function in society, wouldn’t we have overwhelming evidence? Shouldn’t we just be able to look around our neighborhoods and see the catatonic former arcade junkies as proof of how terrible this sort of thing is?

According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, the average child already spends 7 hours a day interacting with screen media.

Great. So is that good or bad? Because screens can display a wide range of things. Some of these would be easy to categorize as good, like art. Some of these would be easy to categorize as bad, like porn.1 Most are somewhere in the middle. Is reading a novel a good thing? Probably. Is reading novels to the exclusion of everything else a good thing? Probably not. Attempts to limit “screen time” in general are horribly misguided. It’s easy to see your kid spending way too much time reading books or playing Nintendo alone and just limit that activity. But lumping everything that is displayed on a screen in one category is not at all analogous. It may be easy to do, but often the easy thing to do is not the best thing to do. Know what you’re banning before you decide to ban it.

The attention-grabbing features these types of games utilize are modeled after advertising research and gambling psychology. Essentially these games trigger the survival mechanisms in the brain and inhibit the development of key functions of the prefrontal cortex – critical thinking, problem solving, empathy and attention.

This is the strongest part of the argument, and it’s still not all that convincing. Clearly, decades of research in advertising and gambling has revealed that people are susceptible to patterns of flawed thinking. And that research has been used to build seriously, destructively addictive video games. This is a legitimate reason to be concerned.

Our reaction to this concern, however, shouldn’t be to simply ban access outright. Pokémon Go is not the only situation people will face in life that is based on this sort of psychological manipulation. It should, therefore, be a reasonably safe environment to teach your children about these psychological manipulations and how they work. Obviously, some kids are going to be too young to get it. For those, limiting access is probably the only option.

Hunting for Vulpix activates the same brain structures as playing Grand Theft Auto. Indoors or out, both are detrimental to the developing brain.

Oh yeah. I almost forgot about how we proved in the early 1990s that violent video games definitively cause children to rot their brains and/or grow up to become mass murderers. Or wait, what was it again? Maybe it was actually a far more subtle result.

This argument is so old, that I distinctly remember my father constantly telling me that all that Nintendo would rot my brain. He said it so often that I made it part of the dedication in my dissertation. In reality, Nintendo games became one of the key common interests my friends shared. We talked about them. We had sleep overs to play them into the wee hours of the morning. We played them when we all went to college. We still play games. It’s one of the few things we can do together now that we’re spread all over the country.

Of course, to prove the claim that these things are “detrimental to the developing brain” wrong, we don’t have to show that they are healthy. We just have to show they aren’t any worse than alternative leisure activities. Again, shouldn’t we have easy access to hundreds of brain damaged individuals who literally wasted their youth playing video games?2

Unstructured outside play is one of the best ways for children’s brains to recover from school pressures and excessive screen media. Inventing games, building forts or just playing a pick-up game of soccer are all ways to not only increase their imagination, creativity and social skills, but also their critical thinking skills.

Letting a video game “do the imagining for you” is an especially disheartening notion. Imaginative play is critical to brain development and staring at a phone waiting for Bulbasaur to appear is far from a healthy substitute.

Ah yes, creativity and imagination. I’m all for those. Seriously. I competed in Odyssey of the Mind as a child, eventually winning a Rantra Fusca Award at the World Finals. In college, I competed on PSPE’s Rube Goldberg Team. As a software engineering researcher, I have read about creativity research for software requirements. And this has led me to read, for fun, other research on creativity. I’m all in on creativity and imagination. You may not find anyone more interested in ensuring their kids are taught to value these skills.

So does Pokémon Go actually limit creativity and imagination or slow the development of social skills?

One of the key markers that I look for in bad journalistic accounts of science is the lack of an explanation that’s actually tied to the purported cause. You can see it here by replacing “video game” with “television” or “book.” Try it. Can’t you just see parents in the early 1500s decrying the books that are robbing their children of all those opportunities for creativity and imagination? That damn printing press! What, precisely, is the mechanism that causes Pokémon Go, or screens, or whatever to crush an opportunity for unstructured play? Moreover, how was it discovered? Who has replicated this finding?

Science is hard people. It’s not any easier when the press misreports it, highlighting the possible as if it were definitive. John Oliver did a reasonable job explaining some of the reasons for this recently on Last Week Tonight:

Scientific Studies from Last Week Tonight on YouTube

I’m not saying that Pokémon Go is the best thing since sliced bread. I’ve never even played it. All I’m saying is that the evidence for augmented reality games is far from clear, but the most likely scenario is that this is just another game with pros and cons like every other video game. Some kids will play too much of it. Others won’t like it. Still others will find that happy medium on their own. Worse, the moral outrage on “screen time” is a classic technopanic. Be careful when reading about “science” as reported by the news media. It’s important we get this sort of thing right. How awful would it be for us to make decisions based on Fox News or their competitors when we can simply search for actual science and read it for ourselves? Do it for the children!

Update 10 Aug 2016

The inevitable: A study showing that video games potentially allow students to apply and sharpen skills learned in school. The same study showed that use of social networks was correlated with lower test scores in math, reading, and science. Of course, this comes with the usual set of caveats and limitations. Science on humans is hard.

  1. Yeah, not going to go there. 

  2. Is this how Trump won the Republican nomination?