Shocking Research: Kids Who Play Games, Watch TV, Text Don’t Read And Do Poorly At School

The New York Times has come to the conclusion that watching television and playing video games is not conducive to reading. Further, preliminary evidence suggests that chatting on cell phones, updating Facebook, and clicking around YouTube appears to interfere with the mechanics of inserting one’s nose between the pages.

Many will find this news shocking. Who could have guessed that those sending hundreds of text messages a day, many filled with deep content such as “Hi LOL”, and spending endless hours pew-pew-pew-ing with sweaty palms wrapped around Xbox controllers would have difficulty reading?

Certainly not “researchers”, a group of earnest folk who are only now coming to grips with this subtle phenomenon. They “say the lure of these technologies, while it affects adults too, is particularly powerful for young people.”

Some teachers are so flummoxed that they have lapsed into circular arguments, and though they “express unease about students’ digital diets, they are intensifying efforts to use technology in the classroom, seeing it as a way to connect with students and give them essential skills.” Yet who has to teach these kids to text, that now “essential” skill?

One school principal has become so gut-wrenchingly concerned that he has taken to starting school an hour later because “students were showing up bleary-eyed, at least in part because they were up late on their computers. Unchecked use of digital devices, [the principal] says, can create a culture in which students are addicted to the virtual world and lost in it.” Left unexplained is how rewarding the students’ behavior by allowing them to come late will encourage them to abandon their addictions.

A professor from Duke has discovered that if kids “are left to their own devices…the impetus isn’t to do homework but play around.” A team of Germans “found that playing video games led to markedly lower sleep quality” in kids (I’ll be critiquing this paper in a separate post).

In short, the grownups are mystified. As is typical in situations of this sort, none of the adults thought to ask the kids their opinions. Except the Times reporter, who heard from one kid that “I’ll be reading a book for homework and I’ll get a text message and pause my reading and put down the book, pick up the phone to reply to the text message, and then 20 minutes later realize, ‘Oh, I forgot to do my homework.'”

Another said, “I know I can read a book, but then I’m up and checking Facebook…Facebook is amazing because it feels like you’re doing something and you’re not doing anything. It’s the absence of doing something, but you feel gratified anyway.”

A third noticed that on YouTube, “you can get a whole story in six minutes…A book takes so long. I prefer the immediate gratification.”

In other words, the kids know just what’s wrong, and they know the solution, too:

[The third student] says he sometimes wishes that his parents would force him to quit playing and study, because he finds it hard to quit when given the choice. Still, he says, video games are not responsible for his lack of focus, asserting that in another era he would have been distracted by TV or something else.

He wishes his parents would be authority figures! Yet his mother couldn’t bring herself to be one. “If we put roadblocks in his way, he’s just going to get depressed.” Better her son not be sad. He may not be able to read and write, but at least he will be happy. Temporarily.

One commenter noticed the problem is not new:

In 1685 historian Adrien Baillat wrote, “We have reason to fear that the multitude of books which grows every day in a prodigious fashion will make the following centuries fall into a state as barbarous as that of the centuries that followed the fall of the Roman Empire. Unless we try to prevent this danger by separating those books which we must throw out or leave in oblivion from those which one should save and within the latter between what is useful and what is not.”

Exposure was used by the Spartans to effect a strengthening of the tribe; Baillat suggests the same be done with bad books. And if we as parents care to raise literate children, we might follow the Spartan example with Facebook inter alia. Incidentally, it’s curious to see the inversion of that word from something evil to a thing earnestly desired.


  1. I read part of the NYT article but I quit when I saw the quotes about using more technology in the classroom to teach kids whose attention span has been decimated by technology.

  2. JH

    Goodness, has the Times reporter interviewed my kids without my permission?

  3. Speed

    Typing just the word “discipline” into Bing yields as the first result …

    – training to ensure proper behavior: the practice or methods of teaching and enforcing acceptable patterns of behavior
    – order and control: a controlled orderly state, especially in a class of schoolchildren
    – calm controlled behavior: the ability to behave in a controlled and calm way even in a difficult or stressful situation

    Encarta World English Dictionary

    Simple concept. Hard to do. Very rewarding.

  4. William Sears

    Yes, but remember that according to John Gatto the purpose of public education is to dumb us down and keep the population compliant. Students will seek out the knowledge they need if you remove the compulsory nature of government schools and let the market give consequences to ignorance.

  5. Ken

    There’s a magazine out on newstands (not many) now entitled something like ‘DiscoverY Brain Special Edition’ addressing a number of research findings involving the Brain. #@$%^$!!!! if I can’t recall the exact title…and I bought a copy, which I left at home…

    Anyway, there’s an article there summarizing how the internet & search engine operating style taps directly into a number of organic human response/reward mechanisms. To oversimplify: we humans like quick feedback, novelty, etc. and the rapid response to search queries coupled with effectively infinite feedback links stimulates this basic aspect of human mental processes/processing. That plus other interruptions like responding to tweets & e-mails–which feeds human needs for social connectedness–all conspire to induce the vast majority of people to review information quickly & superficially.

    For youth this is particularly bad because this works against them learning lots of information that is warehoused via a schema approach that involves the development of pattern recognitions & other relationships among & between information stored. It is upon such a foundation that one develops over time the abilty to reason, analyze and develop creative solutions.

    Lacking such a foundation–which the internet greatly facilitates–leads to a less complex foundation, decreased reasoning & creative capability later in life, which in turn leads people to develop less sophisticated whatever–including solutions to problems.

    THE INSIDIOUS ASPECT: Neuroplasticity–the brain’s literally physical “re-wiring” in response to any recurring type of stimulation–has been shown to respond to prolonged internet use. In other words, prolonged internet use changes your brain in a way that makes it more difficult for you to think & reason deeply on any given issue! This is particularly bad for youth–but–applies to adults as well.

    THUS, while the above blog entry is true, etc. — it really misses (as does most of the widely published info available to most people) some very significant issues.

    BRIGGS: I’ll forward separately a copy of that article.

  6. Ray

    Do you mean people prefer to play rather than work? That’s amazing! Who would have guessed. Someone will of course apply for a government grant to study this further.

  7. Ari

    Yet my friends and I who are “plugged-in” and spend a lot of time on our evil game consoles also tend to be rather well-read and capable of reading.

    I can’t help but wonder if the kids who aren’t doing their work now would also be the Tom Sawyers of the past generations.


    The stupified children will not be cast aside. Rather, they will become TSA screeners!

    TSA Advertises Open Jobs On Pizza Boxes

    (NewsCore) – Looking for a personal scan pizza?

    The Transportation Security Administration is trying a new tack to fill a slew of screener positions — advertising on pizza boxes.

    “A Career Where X-Ray Vision and Federal Benefits Come Standard,” screams a TSA ad appearing on pizza boxes popping up across the Washington, D.C., region, The Washington Post reported Tuesday.

    “See yourself in a vital role for Homeland Security,” plead the advertisements.

    TSA spokesman Greg Soule said the method was intended to reach a “broader applicant pool.” He declined to say how much the agency was spending on the campaign.

    Now who is having the last laugh?

  9. What Ari says.

    When I was young, some kids were bookish and others weren’t. Now I’m not so young, so kids are bookish and some aren’t.

    What has changed (aside from me getting older) is that the non-bookish now use phones to hang out, and video games to while away the time. When I was young, they’d do both at the same time by hanging around in groups in dark corners of shopping malls.

  10. JJD

    Here’s a modern, state of the art way to get teenagers to read. Set up a service so that, for example, if a teen texts “MOBY DICK” to 5551212 the entire novel is texted back in 140-character segments spaced 10 minutes apart. The student tweets progress reports every hour while sitting in Starbucks with his friends. This could be the next Facebook!

    dude im just readin chap 20 of tale of 2 cities LOL. alredy finisht statistiks hw.

  11. ad

    Both my kids (now aged 9 and 6) were given access to computers and internet (filtered). When they kept asking what words and phrases on the screen meant, and how to type words in response, I told them they would have to teach themselves to read and write. They both promptly did so by age 4-5. As a consequence when they started school they complained how dumb the other kids were because they couldn’t read and write (well, type). They both love to read books as well and are still years in advance. Of course they just might be clever.

    Video games are a different kettle of fish. Apart from Nintendo DS’s they don’t have them.

  12. Keith

    ‘Shocking Research: Kids Who Play Games, Watch TV, Text Don’t Read And Do Poorly At School’

    Yes, but so what? I realise that WMB is being ironic but you could equally well say ‘Kids who don’t do school work, don’t do well at school’. Whether they are play video games, football or throwing the javelin is likely to be largely irrelevant.

    The recent criticism of video games and technology is just the same as the criticism of TV some years ago (but still continuing). When I was a kid, I got told off for spending too much time reading!

    Concur with Ari and Stephen.

  13. Keith

    ‘I read part of the NYT article but I quit when I saw the quotes about using more technology in the classroom to teach kids whose attention span has been decimated by technology.’

    Times change. As a HE educator of some 25 years, I think the internet and the new technology is absolutely fantastic. It’s not the technology; it’s what you do with it and what you use it to achieve.

  14. “…and when they grow up they will vote for politicians promising the “sickest” free video games.” So it all works out well in the end.

  15. Ari


    I know you’re being silly, but I wouldn’t vote for someone promising free games. Games are hard work to create, requiring the work of dozens or hundreds of engineers and artists of every stripe imaginable. They deserve to be compensated for their hard work.

    Another thought: if not for the evils of Facebook and IM and texting and whatnot, I would have had a hard time staying in touch with my many friends who live all over the world and US. I am so thankful to be part of a generation with access to cheap ubiquitous tech.

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