Of course, we all know the textbook answer: teenagers should be playing sports, hiking, reading books, socialising without alcohol or sex, and also doing their homework and helping with chores. But if they have to relax with electronics, what’s better (or less worse): computer games or TV?
The Addiction Aspect
Picture this scene: a contemporary Kiwi household, a family with at least one teenager.
“Dinner’s ready! Get off the computer!” (No chocolate fish for guessing who’s shouting it.)
Silence. Just a soft tap-tap of the keyboard, or an occasional: “He’s behind you!”
“Josh,” (or Aidan, or Ben, or Katie), “now, please!”
“If you don’t join us for dinner right now, I’m switching off the Internet.” This is said quietly, almost in a whisper.
And instantly, we have results. “Coming down,” accompanied by the sound of teenage feet pounding on the stairs.
There’s something addictive about computer games, this inability to disengage and leave the pixel world at a moment’s notice, something that you just don’t see with TV. Sure, we all binge-watch TV series, but we can press the pause button at any point, deal with the real world, have dinner with the family. Heck, we can have dinner with the family in front of the TV! (Kids, don’t try that one at home.)
Computer games are designed to make you want to keep playing: they use feedback loops, rewards, and challenges; they tell you stories about compelling new worlds and put you in charge of what happens next.
If the games your teen favours are multi-player games, then they’re socialising. Sometimes they play with real-life mates, sometimes it’s with people they only know online, but they are still talking, competing and cooperating. You can compare it to shooting pool or playing card games, which are considered perfectly acceptable ways of spending time with friends.
Similarly, watching TV as a family can be a social activity. Modern technology allows us to press the Pause button at any time and discuss what’s happening or philosophise about any life lessons unfolding on the screen. Inviting friends over to watch a movie or a rugby game is very much a valid form of personal interaction.
Impact on Physical Health
Watching TV and playing computer games both support an inactive lifestyle. When performed on a regular basis and for extended periods of time, either of these could lead to obesity and lowered fitness levels. Of course, it’s all relative: if your teen cycles to school, plays basketball, summer hockey and represents the local club in swimming, then spending an hour a day on electronics is not going to impact his or her physical wellbeing.
And there is always exer-gaming: computer games that use technology to track body movements and make them part of the game (think playing tennis on a Wii console). But even an ordinary session of video gaming involves small movements with the mouse and the joystick, and while it’s unlikely to make the player ripped like The Rock, it still burns slightly more energy than slouching in front of the TV.
The stereotypical idea of a computer nerd is somebody who lives on soft drinks and junk food. And yet, if you think about it, playing video games is such an all-absorbing activity that you don’t have time to snack. The downside is that you don’t have time to drink water either (plus, who would want to drink water and then have to go to the toilet in the middle of a computer battle?), so there is a real danger of dehydration, particularly if the game is so engaging that your brain blocks out your body’s signals.
Compare it with going through a bucket of popcorn or a chocolate slab in front of the TV: because we’re not actively participating in what’s happening on the screen, it’s much easier to overeat, especially if high-energy low-nutrition snacks are part of our TV culture.
Gaming is a form of self-indulgence. However, there is evidence that playing games changes the structure of our brains, and in some cases, enhance our sustained attention and selective attention. Computer games can also expand visuospatial skills, and teach us to think fast and resourcefully.
Research suggests that playing the right type of games could potentially facilitate learning by exercising cognitive thinking and problem-solving.
Many teens find that playing video games boosts their self-confidence. Their high scores are a tangible proof that they are finally good at something. Apex Legends says this on its website: “Show ‘em what you’re made of in Apex Legends, a free-to-play Battle Royale game where contenders from across the Frontier team up to battle for glory, fame, and fortune.”
You can be good at Apex Legends. It doesn’t have the same ring to it if you say that you’re good at watching The Game of Thrones.