Plug in and drop out: are computer games damaging children?

Nathalia Gjersoe and Natalia Kucirkova are lead educators on The Open University’s free online course, “Childhood in the Digital Age.” Here, they discuss whether there’s any evidence that suggests computer games are damaging children and invite you to take a quiz about your own attitudes towards technology in young people’s lives.

A child using an iPad

A child using an iPad © Sami Sert/iStock

In his recent book, “Man (Dis)connected,” Professor Philip Zimbardo of Stanford University claims that computer games and internet pornography are leaving boys bored in school, disinterested in human contact and opting out of society.

These claims echo regular, alarming headlines in the media. The rise of digital technology in children’s lives has been associated with higher rates of ADHD, autism, loneliness and obesity.

Do you think computer games are dangerous for children?

Based on your own experiences and those of the children in your life, answer the following set of questions and see how your views compare to other FutureLearners:

Perhaps you found simply answering “yes” or “no” to each question was difficult. You might have different responses when thinking about different people, how much time they spend playing and the sort of games they play. These complexities are often ignored in the media coverage and sometimes even in the academic research.

There are some findings to suggest damaging effects of excessive computer game playing. For instance, in his book, Zimbardo presents evidence that boys’ brains, in particular, “are being digitally rewired for change, novelty, excitement and constant arousal – leaving them out of sync in romantic relationships and traditional classes.”

All things in moderation

However, much of this research focuses on children who play computer games more than 3-5 hours a day.

In the UK, more than 80% of boys and also girls play some form of computer game every day. Dr Andrew Przybylski and colleagues at the Oxford Internet Institute surveyed nearly 5,000 British boys and girls aged 10-15 years.

They found that, compared to children who played no computer games at all, those who played for around an hour a day:

  • had higher levels of sociability;
  • were more satisfied with their lives;
  • had fewer friendship and emotional problems;
  • and were less hyperactive.

Overall, research findings in this area show that moderate time spent playing computer games is a positive experience for most young people socially and academically.

Excessive use (as with all excesses) can be detrimental. This reflects a tiny percentage of computer game players, but it is often the negative research findings based on extreme usage that are most widely published in the media.

Examine the evidence

To find out more, join our free online course, “Childhood in the Digital Age.”

It examines the evidence for the different sides of the debate around children’s use of digital technology and explores how we can maximise digital opportunities while protecting children from the risks.

What do you think? Are you a technology optimist or pessimist? Leave your thoughts in the comments below or join the conversation using #FLdigitalkid15.

Category Teaching

Comments (118)

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  • sarah jordan

    Technology is just a tool – parents and teachers are role models – so they need to show children how to use it in moderation!
    Having said that I spend hours every day using technology – so far today…
    Reading the paper on line at breakfast
    Marking student’s essays online
    Planning lectures and putting interesting articles on Moodle for students to read
    Looking for a recipe for tea tonight (fish curry I think)
    Checking cinema times for after tea (waiting for ‘The Circle’ but it’s not out until April)
    Looking up if I can get tax relief on my pension on the .gov.uk website
    Surfing FB whilst eating lunch to see if any friends and relatives have posted photos
    Using WhatsApp throughtout the morning to chat to my husband and daughter.
    Two hours on a online course about ‘childhood in the digital age’ – reading articles and watching videos whilst knitting.
    And it’s only 12.30!!!
    Hours awake so far today = 4.5
    Hours on screens = 4.00 (had a shower and got dressed without any screens!)

    • Simone

      I have regularly read an ebook or watched something on a tablet while showering at the same time. Obviously you have to keep the tablet splash free and if you are going to turn any digital pages you need to wipe off water drops from your hand. If you are like me it could easily be 4.5 hours of screen time. I am concerned about the time my teenage son spends in front of a screen but it’s a case of the kettle calling the pot black.

  • Mona

    I am a technology optimist and work in a country that will soon move to a middle income country. Technology here is advanced and availability of mobile phones is vast. I understand technology can greatly support developmental milestones of children if used properly. My concern is how to empower children, families and teachers to inform them on the pros and cons of using technology. IF students in school get a link on pornography what should they do? The realities of such sites etc. This will particularly support the adolescents to make informed decisions in the choices made when it comes to accessing X-rated/adults content websites, social media usage etc. I also would like to support parents to be more hands on with the use of technology in the house. And support children to have the right balance of both worlds- technology and the real word-.

  • Natalia Dubebcu

    I am more to define myself as technology optimist rather than pessimist. I have seen during my classes pupils who are keen on technology and how easy they manipulate each application. This category of children are more active and independent, but the seem not so keen on outdoors actvities. There are few kids in my class who are not at ease with technology from different perspectives, whereas they do not posses those gadgets or they simply are not interested in them (very few).
    Observing my own children at home, I would say they are crazy about finding new applications, games, etc. Sometimes, I would prefer them to be outside than exploring the secrets and endless technology.

  • Teresa

    Children grow up in digital environment, it’s easy to addict to games. Some adults also spend a lot time on it. I was told that people enjoy playing games because the reality is so disappointed and they could get sense of accomplishment from games. Even adults can easily addict to games, how about children?
    I grow up in countryside. I enjoy the nature more. Technologies brings a lot convenience, at the same time, people seem to be robbed by it….. I hope children could enjoy the nature more, spend more time on other entertainment or learning methods.
    I am neither pessimistic nor optimistic on technology. It does have advantages, but addict to an unreal world is not a good way for life. It’s OK to relax for a while but it’s not necessary to learn from it, reality is always much more complicated and cruel than it.

    • Teresa

      Corrections and updates:
      1. Many children grow up in digital environment, there are still many children are struggling on basic survival conditions, haven’t even seen a computer, pad or smartphone;
      2. Games might be a good way for people to interact with others. It helps to improve the social skills and prompt reaction;
      3. People addict to games seems spend much more time indoor. Even when going out, seems like they enjoy offline games like playing cards more than other entertainments or activities;
      4. Game APPs almost flooded the APP store in my phone. Are there so many people playing games?Market is always driven by benefits and profit. Why the game industry rank benefits and profit so high and ignore their social responsibility and the life quality of the customers and users?

  • Kath J

    Technology Optimist… well I would say I can see a value to some computer games, they do teach some skills, however I also can see that if a child is glued to their games most of their ‘free time’ then this would have a detrimental effect. Outdoor play and exercise is important to a child’s development, so there is a place for technology but we must be vigilant in ensuring that children’s ‘life experiences’ only come in digital formats.

  • heather

    I have not played enough computer games to begin to understand why people are attracted to them. I know there are some violent games – and I know some are not like that and that there may be an element of learning involved. I guess I think of games as being difficult to understand. I can play draughts, but can’t begin to understand Chess. I will play Scrabble – but not from a competitive perspective. I guess I am not a gamer. – H

  • Jill Lister

    I am technology pessimistic according to the quiz. I love technology.I did most of my degree on line, and love the way you can research and connect with people so easily. I could quite happily spend hours on my I pad.
    I also think many computer games seem addictive, repetitive and violent.Also much of the information or ‘research’ is of poor quality and needs filtering.
    My own children were born in the late eighties, I discouraged or limited computer games. They had so much fun and real adventures. Now I have a 2 year old grand daughter , I thought I would like to investigate how it affects her. Adversely or for the good.

  • Casey

    I was surprised that the quiz said I am a technology pessimist. I think there is a useful place for technology and there needs to be a balance. Determining what that balance actually looks like and achieving that is the challenge.

  • aligillani

    i am a technology optimist and i am on the point that technology is playing a imp role in the lives of our new generation they are more efficient than us.

  • sandra pope

    Technology has its uses but overuse can be detrimental to a child. Children still need to be encouraged to go outdoors to play physical games and so on. The process of playing for hours on a lap top, mobile or ipad is not conducive to forging real life friendships .

  • dilshat urmi

    I am not tha kind of technology friendly person. But i depends on technology everone is. Everyone busy to make friends in social media not in real world. The most scary thing is sometime we don’t even have time for our own children and because of these children are now became depended on their digital world. It makes them isolated , undemanded sometime.

  • Heather Wells

    I have grown up in the era of digital technology, when I first went to university in the 70s, even calculators were considered high tech. Society now seems to expect a certain level of digital literacy as the norm and it has brought real benefits in some areas. But, I am concerned at our over dependence on technology and some peoples preference for interactions via social media rather than real life.

  • Bertha

    I am not really sure what I am. I have concerns with the over use of technology and how it is taking over natural play time. But have also seen how it helps certain children communicate in a group.

  • Sheena

    I seem to be a technology pessimist. I have seen my 6 year old grandson spend hours on video games aimed at children. He does not like to be distracted from them. I have three daughters now in their 40s who were more creative and into imaginative games at the same age. Maybe it is a gender thing? His hand and eye co-ordination have always been good and he is a good reader for his age but never takes up a book for relaxation. He is also obsessed by Pokemon at the moment.

    • Catherine Guiot

      Hi Sheena,
      I have an identical grandson (and also 3 daughters!) I thought his behaviour was a gender thing, too, but now his five year old sister ( who copies all his behaviour) is just as obsessed with her tablet as he is with his. I’ve come to the conclusion that I can’t do much about it as both their parents have high-powdered IT jobs and don’t seem to worry about excessive usage and, in fact, often encourage it. I look after the children every Wednesday when there’s no school here in France and try to limit their tablet time. I find that once I’ve actually put the tablets away ( and dealt with the aggro!) the children are quite happy to play board games or paint or do whatever old-fashioned activity I manage to come up with.
      I’ve just finished the ‘Anthropology of Social Media’ course which has left me feeling more relaxed about all this screen time.

      • Catherine Guiot

        That should read ‘high powered’. ☺️

  • Eva Gargoulaki

    The quiz says I’m a technology optimist but I don’t behave or think like one. I’m quite concerned about the use of technology in moderate. Parents seem to have less control on their children’s free time, can’t really get involved in their games as they seem to lack energy and time. I do agree that the key is do things in moderate but I just find it hard to stick to it and in this way encourage my child to do the same.

  • Susan

    Technology optimist, As IT will feature more and more within the learning environment ,it is up to parents/cares to ensure how much specifically young children access it and what they are accessing.As research suggests small periods of time enhance learning and well being

  • Chris

    I am a technology optimist. I have not grown up with computers but my grandchildren are exposed to digital technology from birth. I have seen autistic children become part of a group from using this tool. I think it is easy to discount technology but it is the future and we must embrass it with both hands and learn from it. Yes, children most definitely must be out there in the mud and socialising but ignore technology at your peril

    • Bridget

      Leave a comment…playing computer games shappens learners mind of Children