Dr. Susan E. Klear — Licensed Psychologist

Video Games

How do they affect our children’s brains?

Video games and the developing brain We see video games everywhere today. Children and adults are playing them sometimes for long periods of time both during the week and on the weekends. We may assume that the players of video games can be getting less exercise time and/or having less interaction with other people. But how good are they for developing minds?

I was encouraged to look into this topic after having read an article in the San Jose Mercury News on Sunday, September 25, 2005. Four experts discussed their points of view and offered parents specific, age-based advice on exposing children to electronic media (not only video games, but music, educational and electronic games, and television). Dr. Poussaint, professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School feels that “media and TV are influencing children more than their parents are.” Counter-arguments contend that video games and visual media are important to children’s strategic thinking and creativity. The American Psychological Association in August, 2005 called for a reduction of violence in all video games, claiming that they make youngsters aggressive.

In his book “Game-nou-no-kyofu” (“Terror of Game Brain”), published in 2002, Dr. Akio Mori, Professor of Neurosurgery at Tokyo’s Nihon University’s College of Humanities and Sciences, conducted a neurophysiological study observing the effects of video games on brain activity. He divided 250 people, ages 6 to 29, into three groups and watched them for a period of several months. The groups were: 1) those who rarely played video games (nongamers) ; 2) those who played between 1 and 3 hours three to four times a week (occasional gamers) ; and 3) those who played 2 to 7 hours each day (regular gamers). He measured their brain activities in the frontal lobe both while they were playing and on other occasions.

He noticed that among non-gamers a certain type of brain activity, called betawaves, was always present. This means that they were always paying attention. Among people who occasionally played, the beta-wave activity declined at the very moment when they turned on a computer game, but when they stopped playing, the beta-waves reemerged.

In contrast to that, the EEG showed that regular gamers never showed betawaves, not even when they were occupied with other activities. However, the alpha-waves, which signal rest, prevailed. According to the study, ‘this was identical to the EEG of a person suffering from heavy dementia.’ Brain activity especially decreased in the pre-frontal cortex, a region that is responsible for the control of emotion and creativity.

Among regular gamers, activity in this region did not even increase when they were not playing games. Many of the people in this group told researchers that they got angry easily, couldn’t concentrate, and had trouble associating with friends.

According to Dr. Mori, playing computer games put a strain on the visual nervous system, which is injurious to rationality, morals, and self-control. Many computer games deal with escaping from dangerous situations and struggling for life. These contents are stored in the central regions of the brain responsible for the organization of memories. As a consequence, regular gamers will respond to dangerous situations in real life in an inadequate way, as though playing a game. “Many video games stir up tension and a feeling of fear, and there is a very real concern that this could have a long-term effect on the autonomic nerves,” Mori noted.

Autonomic nerves are those connected with involuntary internal organ processes, such as breathing and heart rate. “Heart rate can be altered by electrical signals from emotional centers in the brain or by signals from the chemical messengers called epinephrine (adrenaline) and norepinephrine. These hormones are released from the adrenal glands in response to danger…” He feels that as children’s nervous systems are still developing, they risk becoming addicted to computer games. An adult with a developed nervous system, is less likely to become addicted to the point of not being able to stop.

A 2003 study by Dr. Ryuta Kawashima, Professor of Neuroscience of Tohoku University in Japan and his team found that computer games only stimulated activity in the parts of the brain associated with vision and movement. Kawashima originally decided to investigate the levels of brain activity in children playing video games expecting to find that his research would help the manufacturers. He expected to be able to reassure parents that there are hidden benefits to the increasing number of hours their children were devoting to computer games and was startled by what he discovered. The students who played computer games, he found, were halting the process of brain development and affecting their ability to control potentially anti-social elements of their behavior.

In Kawashima’s opinion, the loss of self-control is not caused by the aggressive contents of the games but by the damage done to the developing mind. Regular stimulation of the frontal lobe in one’s childhood is necessary in order to enable the adolescent to control his behavior. Computer games do not encourage brain development because they mainly require highly repetitive action.

They support the development of quick reflexes rather than the execution of intellectually more demanding activities such as planning and analyzing. Children often do things they shouldn’t because their frontal lobes are underdeveloped. The more work done to thicken the fibers connecting the neurons in this part of the brain, the better the child’s ability will be to control their behavior. The more this area is stimulated, the more these fibers will thicken.

In subsequent studies, Kawashima established that arithmetic exercises stimulate more brain activity than listening to music or listening to reading. Reading out loud was also found to be a very effective activity for activating the frontal lobe.

The above are studies that look at the affects of video games on children. They are important in that they are looking deeper than just the social and recreational aspects of these very popular forms of entertainment. The frontal lobe, which is responsible for such “executive” functions as self-control, judgment, emotional regulation, organization, and planning, undergoes noticeable change during late adolescence, but starts growing at ten to twelve years of age. It is of great concern that there may be a large population that is not getting the brain exercise that is so vitally important for adulthood. It appears that the “3R’s” (reading, ‘riting, and ‘rithmetic) continue to be as important as ever.

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