The effects of video games on school achievement

© 2010 - 2013 Gwen Dewar, all rights reserved

Testing the effects of video games: The importance of controlled experiments

Some survey-based studies have reported a link between video game use and poor achievement in school. But correlation doesn’t prove causation. Kids who struggle in school may be more likely to seek out video games as a distraction.

A recent experimental study helps address this ambiguity. Robert Weis and Brittany Cerankosky selected a group of boys who didn’t own video games (Weis and Cerankosky 2010). Then each boy was randomly assigned to one of two conditions:

  • The “video games now" group got their systems immediately
  • The “video games later" group didn’t receive their systems until months later—after the end of the study

Researchers tracked the boys’ academic performance at school, and found evidence of an effect. Not only did the kids who received game systems spend less time doing homework, they also performed worse on standardized tests of reading and writing four month's later. Moreover, their teachers were more likely to report academic problems.

Such results are consistent with surveys on adolescents who play video games in the United States. In one representative sample of American adolescents, aged 10 to 19, kids who played video games spent 30% less time reading and 34% less time doing homework (Cummings and Vandewater 2007).

But is all the news bad? No. Video game detractors seem eager to publicize studies that support their views. But the evidence suggests that there isn’t any simple lesson regarding the effects of video games on school performance.

Some research suggests that kids who regularly play video games are at a slightly increased risk for developing attention problems at school.

And it’s clear that some kids are out of control--playing video games so frequently that the games begin to dominate their lives.

But it's also likely that playing action video games can boost visual spatial skills and perhaps even help dyslexic children improve their reading ability.

So there are both costs and benefits associated with video games. And it's not unlikely that the effects of games on school achievement depend on the content of the game.

Educational video games not associated with poor school performance

Erin Hastings led a survey of 70 school boys, aged 6 to 10 years (Hastings et al 2010). Her team asked parents to describe their sons’ usage of video games, and to report on their sons’ academic performance (e.g., the boys’ grade point averages).

Subsequent analysis revealed that time spent playing was linked with low school competence--but only for violent video games. Kids who played educational video games (like Math Blaster or Reader Rabbit) did not suffer academically.

More information

For more evidence-based information about video games, check out the Parenting Science guide to the effects of video games on children.

References: The effects of video games on school achievement

Cummings HM and Vandewater EA. 2007. Relation of Adolescent Video Game Play to Time Spent in Other Activities. Arch Pediatr Adolesc Med. 161(7):684-689.

Hastings EC, Karas TL, Winsler A, Way E, Madigan A, Tyler S. 2009. Young children’s video game/computer game use: Relations with school performance and behavior. Issues Ment Health Nurs. 30(10):638-49.

Weis R and Cerankosky BC. 2010. Effects of video-game ownership on young boys' academic and behavioral functioning: a randomized, controlled study. Psychol Sci. 21(4):463-70.

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