Your kids are pros at fighting Fortnite zombies. Question is: What’s happening to their brains in real life? While some critics slam video games for turning young minds to mush, technology optimists promote some games as IQ-boosting silver bullets.
The truth is complicated, according to researchers at the University of Oxford. In their recently published analysis of studies about kids and screen time, they uncovered a host of contradictory conclusions about how gaming affects happiness, academic performance and well-being.
Dr. Dimitri Christakis, editor in chief of JAMA Pediatrics and director of the Center for Child Health, Behavior and Development at Seattle Children’s Research Institute, wasn’t involved in the new analysis but tells The Post that individual differences in screen use make the impact on kids tough to generalize. Plus, the digital world changes so rapidly that long-term studies are tricky to pull off.
“The truth is, speaking as a scientist, that we are unable to keep pace with the development of these technologies,” he says. “We’re constantly struggling to catch up.”
Many parents can relate. For those whose gaming days were defined by the simple side-scrolling action of Mario Bros., today’s complex offerings can seem strange. But experts who work with children insist there is real educational potential in today’s digital games — if adults level up their own knowledge.
“Games now offer an immense range of experiences, things that parents might not have a ton of [familiarity] with,” says researcher Tanner Higgin, Ph.D., director of education strategy for the independent game review site Common Sense Media. Indeed, only 43 percent of adults play video games, according to 2018 figures from the Pew Research Center, compared with 90 percent of teens.
As a result, well-meaning moms and dads often steer kids toward games that mimic old-school classroom activities. But those are often digital dead ends, says developmental behavioral pediatrician Dr. Jenny Radesky, a researcher specializing in family media use at the University of Michigan.
“A lot of games that are advertised as educational are basically just animated worksheets,” she says, citing those driven by activities such as matching, math problems and multiple-choice trivia questions. “I call these closed-loop experiences — you do one thing, and then you get confetti and balloons for getting it right. These are very rote concepts that present a [crude] view of what education is.”
Higgin agrees. “The greatest learning potential for games is when they look unlike those traditional forms of learning,” he says. He’d rather see kids play games that encourage “creative, conceptual thinking,” with storylines that encourage them to “engage in meaningful choices and have different experiences each time.”
Other subtle markers of a game that boosts brainpower include peer-to-peer collaboration, challenges that allow for trial and error (instead of an avatar immediately dying, for example) and real-time feedback that helps kids reach the next level.
“A lot of good games are intricate systems; they’re like digital machines kids can tinker with and poke at,” Higgin says.
That said, he estimates only around 40 percent of current games meet these criteria for strong learning potential. So, just as you converse with your kids about movies and music, ask about their gaming lives: What do they like about the plot? How are they devising solutions? Do they have a strategy and how will they implement that in their next session? “You want to get kids thinking a bit more deeply about what they’re experiencing,” Higgin says. “They’ll often surprise you with the way they’re interpreting the games and what they’re getting out of them.”
They’ve got game
School-age kids can gain valuable lessons from playing in virtual worlds, provided they choose the right ones, says Common Sense Media education expert Tanner Higgin.
Here, he shares new standout games for each age group: