There are a few things about this study that stand out. First, there have been several studies in North America, but this is really the first comprehensive study in the UK. Called the Millennium Cohort Study, it began by contacting families of children born between 2000 and 2002 and then following up with them when their children turned three, five, and seven. While there was some attrition over the years, the researchers have stayed in contact with over 11,000 participants.
The other unique aspect of the study is that it separates TV watching from playing video games rather than lump both together. That way, the scientists could better determine whether one might be more responsible than another for any increase in mental problems as children grow. Through the study, they looked at gender differences as well.
The study showed that only 1.5 percent of boys had not watched any TV, while 17.5 percent had watched up to an hour a day, and the bulk of the boys watched between one and three hours of television (65%). The results were different, though, when it came to video game use. 28.3 percent of boys had not played any video games by age 5, while 43.7 played less than an hour and only 24.1 had played between one and three hours. The results for girls was practically the same. It seems that parents are much more involved in setting limits when it comes to video games and much more comfortable with young children watching TV compared to gaming.
As part of the survey, mothers were asked to report on several areas of their child's development, including conduct problems, emotional symptoms, peer relationship problems, hyperactivity/inattention, and prosocial behavior.
The study also included information about the family structure itself. Participants answered questions about income, education of the parents, and ethnicity. But they also gave feedback on areas like family functioning (which measured warmth and conflict in the mother child relationship at age 3), frequency of parent-child joint activities at age five, and "household chaos" at age five. There were also areas for child assessment at age five, including cognitive development, longterm illness or disabilities, physical activity, and attitude towards school. All of these factors allowed them to look at their data on TV and video game use while having some control of the variables that might affect results.
What the study found is that watching more than five hours of television at age five led to a slight increase in conduct problems from ages five to seven. However, there were no effects from watching TV at age five for emotional issues, peer relationship problems, hyperactivity/inattention, and prosocial behavior. In addition, playing video games did not reveal any increase in the problems above. They also examined whether there were any differences based on gender but found none.
One notable point in their findings is that they were careful to differentiate between direct and indirect links to negative effects associated with TV and video games. Video games have been linked to sleep problems, but those sleep problems are really caused by the sedentary aspect of playing a game for a long period of time, not by the games themselves. Similarly, there may be family circumstances behind a child's lengthy game time, which also may be a factor in psychological problems. If anything, this study reminds us that TV and video game use can't really be examined on its own. There are simply too many external factors that play a role in a child's development, some within the family structure itself, and there's a big difference between direct and indirect links to mental health problems and other negative effects.
Of course, the study leaves some big questions unanswered, the primary one being whether there are any direct links between TV/video games and mental health problems at older ages. The teenage years are a particularly sensitive time, and screentime might have a greater effect during those ages. The other problem with the study is that it relies on the veracity of the mothers who are participating. Are they being honest about how much TV watching and gaming they let their children do each day? Are they able to objectively reveal problems with their children? How thorough and how seriously do they take the survey? Hopefully, those responding are being honest, and hopefully enough of them continue to participate so we can learn what effects may come later in a child's development.
For gamers, the results of this study are a bit of good news. We constantly hear about the bad effects of video games, but the results indicate that there are no direct links to playing games and mental health problems, at least in young children. And while we have cause to celebrate, the survey also serves as a reminder that family atmosphere does play a role in a child's development, and that we should be mindful of the connection between family issues and a child's increased use of TV and video games.The MMO Family column is devoted to common issues with families and gaming. Every other week, Karen looks at current trends and ways to balance family life and play. She also shares her impressions of MMO titles to highlight which ones are child-friendly and which ones offer great gaming experiences for young and old alike. You are welcome to send feedback or Wonka Bars to firstname.lastname@example.org.