from the sigh dept
One of the most predictable things in the world is that if anything is going on in the universe, people will try to find some way to make video games into a villain over it. This is doubly true if there are children within a thousand miles of whatever is going on. Notable when these claims arise is the velocity with which any nuance or consideration of a counter-vailing opinion is chucked out the window.
Meanwhile most of the world, and the United States in particular, is suffering in all manner of ways from the COVID-19 pandemic. Hundreds of thousands dead. Millions falling ill. Economic fallout for large swaths of the public. High tensions due to all of this, compounded by a mad would-be-king inciting violence in the house of government. And, even for those not suffering health or massive economic crises, there’s the simple matter that we’re all more isolated, all home more often, and all mired in a severe lack of socialization and life-affirming activities.
And it’s in this environment, apparently, that the New York Times has decided to chide parents for letting their kids play video games and allowing more screen time more generally.
The article, which ran on January 16, quoted some experts and presented a lot of “scary” numbers about screentime. But it also glossed over the fact that video games and the internet have helped many people, kids and adults, stay connected and sane during this terrible time.
The whole post is also oddly bookended by a random small family that is currently struggling during the pandemic. Their son plays a lot of video games as a way to connect with his friends. His father and mother are concerned about how much time he spends in front of the screen, but also know it’s one of the few ways he has to safely socialize while covid-19 runs wild across the world. This is a hard situation I imagine many parents around the globe are going through right now. But highlighting only kids and how much screentime they are using ignores that all of us, not just children and teens, are dealing with increased screentime and a lack of real human interaction. Instead, the article goes on and on about how potentially unhealthy and dangerous all this screentime could be for kids. How kids need to disconnect more. How kids are playing too much Roblox.
This whole diatribe is off for a number of reasons. First, let’s start off with the obvious: these are not normal times. If experts want to make arguments or present data that one amount of screen time or another, or even certain amounts of video game playing, is harmful to children, I’m open to those arguments. They need to come with actual scientific data, but I’m open to them. But during a pandemic, when most children are incredibly isolated form their normal activities — team athletics, outdoor play with other children, school and after-school activities, etc. — someone is going to have to tell me how increased time playing video games or in front of a computer screen is somehow more harmful than the void of any affirming activity. There are only so many books a child is going to read. Only so many games of cards. Only so much time in imaginative play, or in discussion with his or her parents. Now is not a normal time, so why are we grading parents by normal rules?
Hell, even the experts on the matter have made their recommendations for screen time during the pandemic a moving target.
Dr. Jenny Radesky, a pediatrician who studies children’s use of mobile technology at the University of Michigan, said she did countless media interviews early in the pandemic, telling parents not to feel guilty about allowing more screen time, given the stark challenges of lockdowns. Now, she said, she’d have given different advice if she had known how long children would end up stuck at home.
“I probably would have encouraged families to turn off Wi-Fi except during school hours so kids don’t feel tempted every moment, night and day,” she said, adding, “The longer they’ve been doing a habituated behavior, the harder it’s going to be to break the habit.”
It’s also very much worth keeping in mind that discussions on recommended limits to screen time and, even more so video games, are relatively new things given the rapid pace with which technology has been developed. And those recommendations regarding screen time for children have been moving targets over the years. New studies come out all the time on the topic and recommendations from experts likewise get updated.
Moving targets upon moving targets. If you’re getting the sense that what experts say about all of this during the COVID-19 pandemic has a make-it-up-as-we-go quality to it, ding ding ding!
And instead of any nuance afforded to the fact that video games have changed wildly to become multiplayer social platforms as much as games, and what that means for children who need to socialize during a pandemic, the article instead just further vilifies game-makers.
Children turn to screens because they say they have no alternative activities or entertainment — this is where they hang out with friends and go to school — all while the technology platforms profit by seducing loyalty through tactics like rewards of virtual money or “limited edition” perks for keeping up daily “streaks” of use.
“This has been a gift to them — we’ve given them a captive audience: our children,” said Dr. Dimitri Christakis, director of the Center for Child Health, Behavior and Development at Seattle Children’s Research Institute. The cost will be borne by families, Dr. Christakis said, because increased online use is associated with anxiety, depression, obesity and aggression — “and addiction to the medium itself.”
To give the Times an ounce of credit, that quote is immediately followed by an acknowledgement that Christakis’ claims aren’t actually born out by anything other than association metrics. In other words, correlation rather than causation. So why bother even including the quote at all?
To conclude: these are not normal times. An over-indulgence of video games in lieu of other healthy activities is surely not optimal for the health and growth of children. But right now there are severe limits on those other healthy activities. And if some gaming gets children in touch with their friends who they can’t see otherwise, vilifying video games makes zero sense.
Filed Under: journalism, kids, moral panic, pandemic, video games
Companies: ny times