Unhealthful News 17 – shocking news: kids who don’t like school play video games

Yesterday was complicated and long, so a simple one today.  A researcher from Iowa State University, Douglas Gentile, claims to have found evidence that playing video games (which seems to be used as a misnomer for a combination of video gaming, computer gaming, and other online activity) causes depression, social phobias, and neglect of school work.  (It was covered in typical health news fashion here and many other places.  A higher-quality article about it was written in the computer game press, which tells you something.)  This paper in the journal Pediatrics is Gentile’s latest in a series condemning video games.  (Honestly, I do not look in Pediatrics for unhealthful news to write about.  I look in the news, and just happens that many of the examples that provide the best teaching examples about common simple errors come from Pediatrics.)

Gentile has decided to call what he observed “pathological gaming”.  He tried to call it “addiction” before, but apparently that did not catch on.  Besides, this makes it sound really scary, while “addiction” kind of sounds like a joke and annoys the anti-tobacco people.  The claim is that the kids whose survey responses indicate that they have this addiction …er… pathology, spending tens of hours a week at the activity, is what is making the kids not function well in high-structure education or social situations.  He joins a distinguished line of authors who have drawn similar conclusions about ten or twenty percent of kids losing the ability to be good focused happy pupils as a result of comic books, science fiction, television, smoking, drinking, communism, and Satan. 

Could it be, perhaps, that kids who are not wired for standard schooling, are not good at being social, or are depressed might turn to playing?  Or television?  Or reading?  Or going off into the woods alone to hunt, or taking up mechanical work? 

Actually, in communities where kids who do not fit well into the school and social environment are able to go off into the woods and hunt, or it is socially acceptable for them to take up mechanical work, then alarmist blame is not sought.  It is recognized that their niche is different and their choice is not condemned; they are considered acceptable members of society.  But that does not work out so well for most kids today.  Probably especially in Singapore, where the research was done.  Of course, if you believe Gentile, that is mistaken because, “There is no specific reason to assume the relationships between variables would be different in other countries.”  Silly me.  I would have thought that video game playing would be less correlated with social, behavioral, and mood problems in, say, Congo, than in Singapore.  Probably even in France.  But what do I know?

The authors claim, and the reporters blindly accept, that this study was able to distinguish the obvious causal relationship (depression etc. obviously cause kids to engage in solo entertainment) from the cause that makes for good alarmist headlines.  Indeed, the obvious direction of causation was barely acknowledged.  But all the researchers did was conduct the same noisy (i.e., prone to a huge amount of measurement error) survey multiple times and claim that if they got responses that indicated “pathological” gaming the first time and problems with school and friends second that the causation must flow in that direction.  Or as Gentile eloquently put it, “We’ve got hints of causality because we know that something happened before something else.”  (Hints of causality??)  But with noisy syndromic measures (if you check four boxes you are non-pathological, but if you happen to decide to check a fifth one some day you have just become pathological) there is a lot of measurement error, and some of the easy ways to measure the mood/attitude problems are more likely to manifest later (younger children can be forced to be more obedient even if they would rather be otherwise) so a lot of times the actual effect will be detected before its cause. 

For those who read my work on tobacco harm reduction, you may recognize this as the same basis for claiming that use of low-risk nicotine products “causes” people to become smokers later (the “gateway” myth).  Some people have a certain collection of characteristics (liking nicotine, preferring being alone to being social) and just because one characteristic happens to be observed before another obviously does not mean that the one observed first caused the second.

This brings to mind research that I was involved in a few years ago that demonstrated that, contrary to previous belief, Helicobacter pylori (the stomach bacteria that cause ulcers and other diseases) infections sometime spontaneously clear (go away without treatment).  Even though the data was extensive, overwhelming, and collected using much more reliable methods than asking children survey questions, commentators still claimed that the observation was caused by measurement error.  This was obviously wrong, but I had to write an entire extensive analysis to respond to the skepticism.  (If you are interested, the response article is here and you can trace back to the previous bits.  If you wanted more from yesterday’s post, that article has cool Bayesian analysis and likelihood function calculations.)  Funny that when measurement error is quite an implausible explanation it occurs to someone to worry about it, but when it might stand in the way of an alarmist attack on something that the grownups do not approve of, all is forgotten.

Of course, it is probably best that kids are encouraged, to some extent, to conform to the norms they are born into.  Trying to help a child overcome depression or social difficulties rather than retreating into games (or comic books, or drugs) is a really good idea, especially for the ones who are so young as to have a lot of room to learn (the study subjects were as young as grade 3).  Third graders have a lot of better things to do than play video games.  There are a lot of good jobs available in designing new games and similar entertainment, for example, and youthful enthusiasm (the type that does not follow the rules very well) can be an asset.

Anyway, this is getting boring and depressing, so I need to get back to playing Dragon Age.

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