Video games, cell phones and academic performance: Some good news

March 24, 2009

EAST LANSING, Mich. - Using cell phones and playing video games may not be as harmful to children's academic performance as previously believed, according to new research by a team of Michigan State University scholars.

In fact, cell phones had no effect on academic performance among a group of 12-year-olds, the researchers found in a three-year study published by the Conference Proceedings of the International Association for Development of the Information Society, or IADIS, in Barcelona, Spain.

And while the researchers found a strong relationship between video games and lower grade point averages, playing video games did not appear to affect math skills and had a positive relationship with visual-spatial skills. These skills - in which a child learns visually, by thinking in pictures and images - are considered the "training wheels" for performance in science, technology, engineering and math.

"And these are the areas where we want to see improvements in our children's academic performance," said lead investigator Linda Jackson, MSU professor of psychology.

The study is part of a larger MSU project, funded by the National Science Foundation, in which Jackson and colleagues are exploring the effects of technology on children's academic performance and their social life, psychological well-being and moral reasoning.

The researchers surveyed students from 20 middle schools and an after-school center in Michigan. They asked how often the children used cell phones and played video games, both online and offline, and measured the children's grades, visual-spatial skills and performance on standardized tests in math and reading.

As expected, females used cell phones more frequently than did males, while males played video games far more frequently than did females. Some 81 percent of adolescents play video games online, according to the Pew Internet and American Life Project.

Jackson said it's unrealistic to think kids will stop playing video games, so video game developers should focus more on the elements that develop visual-spatial skills and less on themes such as violence. Also, more games should be developed that appeal to girls to better develop their visual-spatial skills, which are essential in professions such as surgery, she said.

"Girls are at a disadvantage by not having that three-dimensional experience," Jackson said. "So when they get to medical school and they're doing surgery in the virtual world, they're not used to it."

When it comes to cell phones, Jackson said she saw no detrimental effects to the students' academic performance. However, further research is needed on older students who are more apt to engage in "devious behavior" such as text-messaging test answers to each other, she said.

The global cell-phone market had 1.8 billion subscribers in 2007 - a number that is expected to reach 3 billion by 2010, according to Baskerville Communications in London.
Joining Jackson on the MSU research team were Hiram Fitzgerald, University Distinguished Professor of psychology; Alexander von Eye, professor of psychology; Yong Zhao, University Distinguished Professor of education; and Edward Witt, graduate student in psychology and project director.

The team's report was honored with the Outstanding Paper Award at the recent IADIS international conference.

Michigan State University

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