Video Nasty – Part 2

More than 2 hours a week playing video games will damage your children’s social skills.

Children want to play video games – they can easily become immersed in them and anyway, that’s what all their friends are doing. Gaming is also a great time killer – video games keep children occupied and stop them getting bored – boys, particularly prone to boredom, spend more time gaming than girls.

But according to a study of 2,442 children aged between 7 and 11 carried out by a team of researchers led by Dr Jesus Pujol of the Radiology Service of Hospital del Mar and the Instituto Hospital del Mar de Investigaciones Médicas – any more than two hours a week and they run a very real risk of increasing the likelihood of getting into trouble at school or fighting with their friends because too much time spent gaming causes them to neglect their social skills.

Children who may already have been suffering from gaming addiction were excluded from the study, which involved popular games such as Super Mario Brothers and football games.

Although gaming can result in improved brain connectivity and functionality – critical for learning and memory and based on the acquisition of new skills through practice – it must be obvious that excessive time spent playing video games limits the scope for other pursuits, particularly team-building activities where a child can develop social skills such as sports and music.

The researchers scanned the brains of 260 children from the group in order to find out what changes, if any, were a result of their gaming. As well as measuring how much time was spent playing the games, they also investigated how well the children did at school and their disciplinary records.

Up to a point, gaming can help develop certain types of motor skill, improve reaction times and even get the children higher achievement scores in school. The team found that players of video games had faster reaction times. Mental processing was typically 100 milliseconds faster than non-players, but this effect did not improve after playing for more than two hours a week, which the researchers called the ‘ceiling effect’.

Children gaming for more than nine hours per week showed significantly more behavioural problems than non-gaming children. This might also have something to do with the fact that they got less sleep – sleep being crucial to healthy development, but more likely it’s down to a lack of interaction with their peer group, learning how to cooperate, how to work together, and about boundaries.

The main effect of gaming on reaction time is more to do with innate mental capacities such as memory and higher levels of connectivity between cells in the basal ganglia white matter region are already seen in people who acquire new skills through practice.

Children traditionally acquire motor skills through action – in the case of video games, the pressing of buttons and manipulation of a control column. But the acquisition of motor skills and improved reaction times is also found in children who learn to play musical instruments to a high standard or take tennis lessons. The major difference is that gaming is a solitary activity whereas music and sport are social activities.

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Despite tobacco and alcohol advertising being subject to age-appropriate restrictions, depictions of drinking and smoking in video games have been ignored by those supposedly responsible for classification. This oversight means that parents are often unaware of inappropriate content that could adversely influence teenagers.

Researchers from the UK Centre for Tobacco and Alcohol Studies at the University of Nottingham have examined the content of the UK’s 32 best-selling video games of 2012 & 2013. They also analysed ‘cut scenes’ that had been uploaded to YouTube from the five most popular games. All the games studied had themes of stealth, action, adventure, open world, shooter, survival, and horror and all involved avatars that looked and acted like real people and the results of the study have been published in the journal Cyberpsychology, Behavior and Social Networking.

Portrayals of the use of alcohol and tobacco were present in nearly half of the most popular video games, with Grand Theft Auto V & VI containing the highest level of alcohol and smoking content, closely followed by Call of Duty: Black Ops II, Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 and Assassin’s Creed III.

Surprisingly, this content is not reported by the official regulator, the Pan-European Games Information (PEGI) the system supposed to inform the Video Standards Council who in turn, is responsible for age ratings.

The researchers also conducted an online survey of 1,094 adolescents aged between 11 and 17 who played games with alcohol and tobacco content. They found that adolescents who had played at least one of the games were twice as likely to have tried alcohol or cigarettes.

Dr Joanne Cranwell, the lead researcher from the UK Centre for Tobacco and Alcohol Studies has noted that parents seem less concerned about inappropriate content in video games than with movies. The University of Nottingham research has found that while 80% of children aged 10-15 play packaged or online video games with an age rating higher than their actual age, more than half of British parents are unaware of the harmful content this exposes them to.

However, the study makes no mention of the social or economic background of the adolescents who participated or the amount of time and effort their parents invest in their offspring. This is as important a factor as it is with other kinds of addiction such as drugs or gambling.

But given that video games are clearly attractive to adolescents, regulators are failing to restrict youth access to inappropriate content. Game developers should be made to reduce the amount of smoking and drinking in their games.

Research published in the journal Molecular Psychiatry describes how brain scans have provided evidence that playing violent video games can damage the physical brain and may even increase the risk of Alzheimer’s disease.

Scientists at the University of Montreal recruited 100 people to play a range of popular ‘shooter’ games such as Call Of Duty, Killzone and Borderlands 2 for a total of 90 hours. They also gave them non-violent games to play from the Super Mario series.

At the end of the study, they found that people who had habitually played violent action games had fewer neurons in their hippocampus – a key memory centre – while those who played the non-violent games ended the study with more.

This discovery challenges previous findings that all video games have the capacity to enhance some aspects of mental processing and benefit certain cognitive systems, including boosting visual attention and short-term memory. But there is also behavioural evidence that there might also be a cost in terms of the impact on the hippocampus, hence the need for a full neuro-imaging study, which scans the brains of habitual players of action video games and compares them to non-players.

What the researchers saw, was less grey matter in the hippocampus of habitual players. The scans were followed up with two longitudinal studies to establish the cause. Those studies found that it was actually the gaming that led to changes in the brain.

The hippocampus is important for spatial memory, which assists navigation, and episodic memory, which recalls past experiences. London taxi drivers who stretch their memory ability by learning ‘the knowledge’ have been shown to possess unusually large hippocampi. But the more depleted the hippocampus becomes, the more a person is at risk of developing brain illnesses ranging from depression to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) to Alzheimer’s disease.

Previous studies have shown that gaming stimulates a habit-forming brain region – the caudate nucleus – at the expense of the hippocampus. The more the caudate nucleus is used to navigate through a game, the more the hippocampus loses cells and so shrinks.

In the new study, brain scans showed that people who relied on the caudate nucleus suffered a measurable loss of hippocampus ‘grey matter’ after only 90 hours of playing action games. But the same amount of time spent playing 3D Super Mario games increased grey matter in the hippocampi of all participants, although in fairness, the results fall short of proving actual harm to players.

Copyright Andrew Newton 2016. All rights reserved.

About Andrew Newton

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Andrew Newton has an international reputation as a leading authority on hypnosis. 

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