The relationship between video games and attention is probably a two-way street, Swing says. “It wouldn’t surprise me if children who have attention problems are attracted to these media, and that these media increase the attention problems,” he says.
Swing and his colleagues followed more than 1,300 children in the third, fourth, and fifth grades for a little over a year. The researchers asked both the kids and their parents to estimate how many hours per week the kids spent watching TV and playing video games, and they assessed the children’s attention spans by surveying their schoolteachers.
Previous studies have examined the effect of TV or video games on attention problems, but not both. By looking at video-game use as well as TV watching, Swing and his colleagues were able to show for the first time that the two activities have a similar relationship to attention problems.
It’s unclear from this study whether that’s the case, however, because Swing and his colleagues didn’t look at the specific games the kids were playing.
“We weren’t able to break [the games] down by educational versus non-educational or nonviolent versus violent,” says Swing, adding that the impact different types of games may have on attention is a ripe area for future research.
The study also suggests that young kids aren’t the only ones whose attention spans may be affected by video games.
In addition to surveying the elementary school kids, the researchers asked 210 college students about their TV and video-game use and how they felt it affected their attention. The students who logged more than two hours of TV and video games a day were about twice as likely to have attention problems, the researchers found.
These attention problems later in life may be the result of “something cumulative that builds up over a lifetime” or “something that happens early in life at some critical period and then stays with you,” Swing says. “Either way, there are implications that would lead us to want to reduce television and video games in childhood.”
The American Academy of Pediatrics, the leading professional organization for pediatricians and the publisher of Pediatrics, recommends that parents limit all “screen time” (including video and computer games) to less than two hours per day.