Via Kotaku, I just stumbled upon this article on a new study that purportedly says that playing more than two hours of video games per day causes attention problems. As usual, whenever video games have been blamed for other problems in the world (e.g. violent behavior, attention issues), I was incensed.

First and foremost, there is one critically important tenet of all research that has to be kept in mind at all times when reading about these studies. It’s so important, it gets its own little box in this blog post:

Correlation is not causality.

Once more for good measure:

CORRELATION IS NOT CAUSALITY.

Have I made myself clear? Now, I understand that this was a longitudinal study conducted over the course of 13 months, but where is the evidence of causality? Are we expected to simply digest this study as some measure of truth without actually being able to read it? If you expect me to believe that you have evidence that 2+ hours of video game playing per day is the cause of attention problems in developing youth, I expect you to demonstrate that attention problems were in the appropriate time-order sequence and not present before gaming habits developed. That’s my next major point of contention:

Who's to say that individuals with attention issues don't play more games, rather than the opposite?

This is to say that maybe if you have an attention issue to begin with, you’ll be drawn to the mental stimulation found in many video games. If that’s true, this study could have been entitled, “2+ hours of gaming per day found to be therapeutic to individuals with attention problems.” What a spin that would be!

Another important factor is what kind of media was actually being consumed, such as the difference between action and puzzle games; Halo 3 versus Professor Layton, for instance. How can any study hope to make a blanket statement about gaming without assessing the types of games being played? Dr. David Elkind, not one of the researchers in question but someone who has performed prior similar research, even commented on the research to say, “The study should have accounted for these variables.” Um, yes. Essentially:

Not all games are created equal. Therefore, different games should logically have different psychological effects.

Even if the study were otherwise performed flawlessly, Dr. David Elkind points out yet another critical flaw in that, “Teacher ratings of attention deficit have been shown in other studies not to be consistent over time.” So the singular measure of attention issues is actually inconsistent, yet still apparently strong enough to aid in drawing a causal conclusion?

So I have this to say you, graduate student Edward Swing of Iowa State University: Your study is adequately motivated and represents research that needs to be conducted, but it boasts critical flaws that undermine the overall validity of your results. In the future:

  • Don’t imply that correlate results are causal;
  • Don’t assume that all games are equal, and;
  • Don’t depend on unreliable variables.

Good day.

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