Well, it happened again. I was attending a group on management of adolescent behavior. I was there to observe and participate. Nobody knew I was a behavioral neuroscientist. I stayed quiet, until the group facilitator said “Science has proven that video games and social media contribute to behavior problems in adolescents.” I couldn’t keep quiet for that: I spend a great deal of time following the literature in this field, and there is no quality science that backs up that claim. In fact, believe it or not, the bulk of good scientific evidence (not observational reports or anecdotes) show a favorable effect of video games.

I have been down this road before. Someone will publish a paper about some aspect of brain science. It will get picked up by the popular media (often encouraged by an overzealous PR department at the sponsoring institution). The media reports, written by people who don’t know how to critically interpret a scientific paper, make claims that aren’t supported by the actual study. The general public—including, unfortunately, a lot of healthcare professionals who ought to know better—see only the popular headlines. Some of the more diligent ones might look at the original study, but their eyes glaze over when they get to the Methods and Statistics sections and they choose to simply allow the press headlines to confirm their preconceived notions. That would be fine if they kept it to themselves, but it becomes a tragedy when they don their mantle of Health Care Professional and try to foist their opinions on others as scientific fact.

Let’s start with this article, published just three days ago:

Screens, Teens, and Psychological Well-Being: Evidence From Three Time-Use-Diary Studies

The Association for Psychological Science also printed a popular-press summary:

Screen Time – Even Before Bed – Has Little Impact on Teen Well-Being

The bottom line? “Data from more than 17,000 teenagers show little evidence of a relationship between screen time and well-being in adolescents.”

I’ll bet that’s not what you’ve been hearing from your Health Care Professional!

I blogged about “screen time” back in 2009, and what I had to say then is still relevant today. Again in 2012, I wrote about a doctor who, woefully ignorant of both the culture and the science, inappropriately waxed judgmental about video games and made specific treatment recommendation that came from a place of abject ignorance.

The usual cowardly attack I get when I bring this stuff up goes something like “oh, so you think that any amount of video games and social media and screen time is okay.” No, please stop putting words in my mouth. I’m simply saying that science does not support the notion that video games are inherently harmful to children and adolescents. (My personal belief is that Facebook is toxic to all ages, but I don’t claim that I have scientific evidence to back it up. I just have anecdotes, and the plural of anecdote is not data.)

Here are some references worth perusing. This is just a sampling of readily-available references. They’re not 100% pro video gaming puff pieces, but they’re also not observational studies passing themselves off as “proof.”

  • The Benefits of Playing Video Games (Granic, et al. American PsychologistVol. 69, No. 1, 66–78)
  • Reality Is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World by Jane McGonigal
  • The Good, The Bad and the Ugly: A Meta-analytic Review of Positive and Negative Effects of Violent Video Games (Psychiatric Quarterly December 2007, Volume 78, Issue 4, pp 309–316)
  • Blazing Angels or Resident Evil? Can Violent Video Games be a Force for Good? (Ferguson Review of General Psychology Volume: 14 issue: 2, page(s): 68-81)

I was once given a handout that came straight from a huge staff-model HMO in Northern California debasing video games and claiming scientific authority. It was actually being given to vulnerable patients by this giant Health Care Authority, offering advice to these trusting souls under the guise of science. I will just leave you with the letter that I wrote in response, redacted to protect the guilty.

The handout that came with ——-‘s evaluation bears some comment.
It came from ———- at —–, who suggested that it links video game play with AD(H)D.

Ms. ——- got it through Common Sense Media, Inc., an organization which has been criticized for, among other things, violating their tax-exempt status by lobbying for politicians and legislation in opposition to the video game industry. Common Sense Media misrepresented it as being a CNET article when, in fact, it is a heavily redacted precis that removes some inconvenient equivocation. They even changed the title, replacing the phrase “video game addiction” with “video games.”

CNET, not known for their restraint in headline writing, got their article from a freelance journalist.

The freelance journalist — who clearly states that the original study did not even attempt to find a relationship between video game use and ADHD — misrepresents a press release from the University of Iowa.

The University of Iowa based their press release on an article published by Wiley in SPR Psychophysiology. The article is not available to the general public. The press release doesn’t even give the title or any other reference to the original article, other than to give the names of authors who (apart from the last pro-forma professor) have no postgraduate degrees or other credentials (well, they’re grad students) in medicine, physiology, psychology, or cognitive science.

What we do know about the article is that it took a small, non-random sample of college students (typically undergrads who are forced to participate in grad student studies as part of a lower-division psychology course) who self-reported less than three or more than forty hours per week of video game exposure.

So what’s in the original article? We end up with a tiny handful of college undergraduate self-selected participants who, if their self reports are to be believed, represent extreme outliers in video game usage. They were then subjected to brain wave analysis, a technique with zero clinic relevance. The conclusion of the authors? “These data lead to the suggestion that video game experience has a negative influence on proactive, but not reactive, cognitive control.”

So, a “suggestion” of a “negative influence” on a non-random sample of college-age outliers using an unvalidated measure of a clinically irrelevant metric (“cognitive control”) gets filtered telephone-game style through Psychophysiology thence through Wiley thence through the University of Iowa press office thence through a freelance journalist thence through the editors at CNET thence through a special-interest lobbying group thence through [the HMO] thence through their [Health Care Professional] and somehow is supposed to show a relationship between “Video Games [and] ADD.” Interesting? Perhaps. Science? No way.