Reading is worse than video games

The biggest problem we have in our child-directed learning program is that my kids want to play video games all day. Well, that’s not true. They’ll choose eating over video games if they’re hungry. And they’ll choose to turn off their games to participate in activities they’ve chosen, like swimming or skateboarding.

But the way to deal with any moment of boredom is to turn on the video games. And in our lives, that means anything from a two-minute drive to the wood pile to a 90-minute drive into Madison. I have made a compromise with them: they turn down the volume on their DS’s and I play whatever violin or cello piece they are learning, or Bach, or, sometimes I take special requests like Willow Smith.

But I still have huge guilt that the kids play so many hours a day.

Fortunately, Lisa Nielsen (who wrote a guest post on this blog about video games) directed me to this post by Peter Gray, a professor of psychology at Boston College. He has great arguments about why it’s important to let kids play video games if that’s their choice.

His first argument is that we should show kids that we trust them to make good choices about what they do with their time. He says kids really do know what is interesting and stimulating to them, and if they have a wide range of choices, we should trust them to make good ones.

The other argument that really blew me away, though, was that if you say that tons of video game playing is anti-social and too sedintary, then you must say that about reading, too. Because it’s true for both reading and video games.

In fact, you could say that video games are more social because kids love watching each other playing video games. So if you are so worried about social development then maybe you should tell your kid to stop reading and try some multi-player video games.

It’s hard for me to understand the video games. I don’t like them. But I do like reading. And if someone said to me that I can only read for an hour a day, I’d be anxious all day, trying to negotiate for more, and trying to sneak (reading pamphlets in the doctor’s office, maybe?) and I would never feel satisfied after my hour was done.

Thinking this way makes me feel that maybe unlimited time might work. Maybe I’ll give it a test.

27 replies
  1. KateNonymous
    KateNonymous says:

    If you talk about what you read, it instantly becomes less solitary. Presumably the same is true about video games.

  2. MichaelG
    MichaelG says:

    Introduce them to computer programming and let them try writing simple video games. That’s much more creative than just playing them.

    Programming also is a job skill, but even if you don’t do it for a living, learning it will teach you a lot about logic and experimentation. It’s not as mathematical as most people think.

    • karelys
      karelys says:

      wow, this is a great idea!

      long ago i saw this windows commercial about a little (3 yr old) girl making a slide show for her daddy and explaining how to make it. she made it fast. it wasn’t super perfect but it was touching. with music and such.

      i love the fact that kids may learn to read faster when they get things done with technology. partly because they recognize symbols and letters are symbols, basically, that later becomes more sophisticated because of grammar.

      I am a bit jealous that my husband can play video games. I gave them a try but I can’t play still. I can only do Mario and when I die many times I get bored.

      But skyrim, the new game, seems beautiful! a cross between Lord of the Rings and Game of Thrones. I’ve watched the show and the movies and it seems it’d be fun to play a game like that. But I can’t.

      Also, I noticed that after finishing my bachelors online I can read better online than in a regular book. Even reading in teh kindle is faster and i assimilate the words better than in regular paper.

      That seemed strange but at the beginning it was harder to read online.

      If kids I let to play video games I’m sure their brains will be better adapted for the new generation of technology. They are speaking their native language. Why not let them become experts.

      I do love the idea of letting them design the games or aiding them to learn how to.

      I think this is a way to set them up for success career wise.

      Although character development is needed to succeed in career a lot of young rich entrepreneurs have already bucked years of experience before they get a college paper. Adjusting your attitude or worldview can happen in a flash but gathering 12 years of computer programming experience won’t happen in a flash.

      so perhaps this is a better set up than reading alone after all.

    • Sara
      Sara says:

      I absolutely agree. Get them thinking about the how and why of video games is a great way to take a hobby they love (which may be social but is not very active, also much like reading) and turn it into a useful skill. This coming from a UX designer, who does websites but wishes she did video games.

    • Donna Sweney
      Donna Sweney says:

      If kids want to program, fine, but most kids do not want to program computers. I say let kids be kids and have fun while they are kids. If they want to do sports or play games while they are kids and they are keeping up with their responsibilities, let them! I have a grown son and daughter who had fun with his friends and played video games and now they do work with computers. They are working hard and very career oriented. They grow up VERY fast. Let them be kids and have fun when they are kids!!!! Let them look back on their childhoods as a time of joy.

  3. Mark K
    Mark K says:

    “It’s hard for me to understand the video games. I don’t like them. But I do like reading. And if someone said to me that I can only read for an hour a day, I’d be anxious all day, trying to negotiate for more, and trying to sneak (reading pamphlets in the doctor’s office, maybe?) and I would never feel satisfied after my hour was done.”

    The path you take to social understanding, empathy even, might be different from that of others, but you do get there.

    This is your #1 resolution this year: Spend less time trying to control outcomes. Now, why not take the next step, and use this opportunity to make progress on that resolution?

    I have heard parents say many times, “my kids would play games all day.” Bull. They do not know that because they have never tried it. I have. And I heartily recommend it.

    Our family has always had at least one x-box gaming console, as well as computer games, and we have never had any limits on how much my son can play. He might have a jag with a new game where he plays 14 hours a day for a few days. And it runs its course. Things get boring, even games, when that’s all you do.

    The whole family is introverts so we’re all like this with occasional “jags” of some private activity be it reading, writing, writing software, and even gaming. Consequently, this was not the dramatic issue for us that it seems to be for other families.

    By definition, parents work with a very limited sample of data: their own kids. But I believe that problems of impulse regulation come from *not* letting kids indulge their impulses a bit. Kids are human beings who just happen to be young right now: they learn some things the same way we learned them. They learn not by incorporating the wisdom of their elders, but by making mistakes, experiencing the consequences, and then making adjustments. In time, through practice, they learn how to handle impulses and desires, and manage them on their own.

    I’d contend that they will learn self-control this “hard way” no matter what, because this skill takes practice. The only question is whether it’s supervised harmless things like video games now, or much scarier things once they are old enough to be out of your sight.

    Having people say no to you does not teach you discipline. That is restraint; it amplifies impulses. Restraint may result in the semblance of discipline. Nothing more.

    Let things run their course. Let your kids learn to handle a little more freedom. Let kids be kids.

    You’ve said that you think parenting is not all that big of a factor in the way kids turn out. Well, if that has any truth, then surely trying an experiment and letting your kids play more couldn’t hurt anything.

  4. Mark W.
    Mark W. says:

    “The other argument that really blew me away, though, was that if you say that tons of video game playing is anti-social and too sedintary, then you must say that about reading, too. Because it’s true for both reading and video games.”

    That’s one way to frame it. Here’s another. Reading enables you to become a better writer. If you want to improve your writing skills then you should be doing a ton of reading as well as practicing your writing. So if you’re reading and writing and think of those activities as inextricably linked then you’re not really being anti-social. The author of that article or book you’re reading isn’t being anti-social. They’re sharing in an asynchronous mode.

    • Mark K
      Mark K says:

      Exactly. Reading is by definition social, since you are thinking along with the thoughts of another individual – the writer. To me it seems almost intimate because often the thoughts written are deep or personal, not superficial blather that often accompanies “social” interaction.

      As for games, my son can play any games he wants and he chooses to play social games with a 200+ friends he has made online playing xbox live.

      I’m blown away by how easily he makes friends online – he was playing for a while with a 30 year old former marine yesterday and they talked for over an hour. I thought my son was interviewing him for his blog, but they were just chatting. This was while playing Battlefield 3 online, by the way.

      Beyond just friendships some games build leadership skills because the random group of people thrown together have to work together and that does not just spontaneously happen. Someone needs to take initiative or else everyone fails.

      A more valid argument against games would be they are too social, meaning your kids come into such an extreme variety of different types of people that it worries you. Yes, I am serious, my son probably learned every swear word I knew during the first day he played on xbox live. I winced, and we talked about it and we moved on.

      Online games offer something more “real life” than the structured, curated institutional venues kids normally are delegated to. I’m thinking it is about as real as it gets.

  5. Victoria
    Victoria says:

    I think that’s a good idea. I’d be very concerned if my kids were playing games all day from 8-17 years old and had no other interests and no relationships. But a year or two of intense gaming doesn’t sound like a problem to me.

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      This is a really interesting perspective, Victoria – to evaluate video-game time in terms of decades instead of days. I never though of that.


  6. kristen
    kristen says:

    We all tend to justify how our decisions are the right ones.
    I struggle with the gaming issue with my older son (8 and 6yo boys) and have come to some conclusions. Which I am, of course, happy to justify. :)
    1. They are too young to have impulse control the vast majority of the time.
    For example, if, everyday, I let them choose whether to have dinner or dessert first, it would almost always be dessert, they would choose to have seconds, and they would rarely finish their dinner. Eventually, they would become overweight, maybe even obese. This would be a natural consequence but one I am not willing to allow them to suffer.
    I feel it is my job to establish good habits and allow them some freedom of choice. Just like they have to have a belly full of good food before a sweet but they can pick the sweet. And if they chose not to finish their dinners they inform me that they don’t really want dessert tonight. OK, fine.
    2. Each child is different.
    For my older son, the sirens call of video games is overpowering. Some kids are able to walk away, not this kid. It is up to me to set limits. And your comparison is absolutely accurate. We set limits on reading as well. He was not allowed to finish the Harry Potter series, he is only 8 and I felt that some censorship was appropriate. Also, he enjoys other things but will get into a “rut” with reading and I need to knock him out of it. 3 hours a day of reading is too much at his age. Once I remind him that there exists other things like art, outside, legos, his brother, etc…he tends to want to play with something else. If I didn’t have him try it for 15 minutes he would do nothing but read.
    3. I have decided to allow video games but only with me or his dad. We enjoy them as well and this way we get family time doing something we like and that he likes. It also naturally limits it due to our impulse control.
    We are our children’s greatest role models and if he sees us playing video games, enjoying them but still managing our time appropriately… hopefully he will follow suit.
    There’s a lot of research to back up this idea, lots of experts heads are nodding sagaciously right now.

    4. I imagine this will change as he ages and we see more impulse control in all areas of his life.

  7. Karen
    Karen says:

    I was just having this argument in the comments section of another blog. The topic there was the causes and solutions to the problem of the rise in childhood obesity rates. It was unbelievable how many people are convinced that video games are one of the major factors causing the rise. My point was that no one is out there telling kids who like to read to put the books down and go outside to play. Most parents are pleased as punch to have kids who love books and they tend to brag about it. It seems to matter not at all what the problem is that is under discussion and there will be someone who will find a way to blame it on video games. I wonder why that is? Maybe it’s assumed that anything kids really enjoy must be inherently bad for them. I guess it goes back to not trusting them to make good choices.

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      We are doing that now. Today is our first day of largely unlimited video games. And I have to admit that they do not seem to be playing much more than if I were placing the usual limits. But, the big news is that the kids are less anxious about video games. I’m amazed at the difference, actually.


      • Mark K
        Mark K says:

        That’s awesome :)

        A quick google search of your site cnfirmed my recollection: you have not mentioned the word “de-schooling” so far on this blog.

        But you’re doing it, a little bit here, a realization there. This experiment is a great example of de-schooling both for you and more importantly for the boys.

        My wife and I started unschooling by reading books aloud together when my son was in the womb, so my son never needed to de-school. But I did. From what I have read about the experience people had transitioning from schooling to unschooling, a lot of us need to pass through a process or period of re-adjustment.

        De-schooling is letting the pendulum swing all the way to the opposite of schooling, giving no care toward what is being learned, and just letting kids live life and have time to rediscover their own inner source of direction. It’s letting everyone involved realize, and then digest the implications of the fact, that the paradigm really has changed. The rules of learning aren’t different–in a way, the rules are gone.

        When the rules are gone, control dissolves. It’s said that nature abhors a vacuum. In this case, something innate and beautiful comes back to life, and rises to fill that emptiness. Nature takes over. Kids take control of themselves. And then you really are unschooling. And it is both as miraculous, and yet as mundane, as birds flying.

  8. L (another Lisa)
    L (another Lisa) says:

    Some days my husband will play video games all day long and I love it because I can then read all day long guilt free.

  9. Sarah
    Sarah says:

    We’ve done unlimited (fill in the electronic device here) several times. Usually it’s me that finds this difficult to maintain. One thing that seems to work well with my kids is explaining my concerns with over usage, and asking them to work with me to come up with guidelines. They all spend hours each day in front of electronics, but also have times that are completely unplugged.

    • victoria
      victoria says:

      We took a similar approach with my seven-year-old. The basic rules are a.) obligations (practicing, chores, etc.) come first; b.) you don’t use electronic devices when you’re somewhere you’re expected to exhibit social graces (at a restaurant, for example); c.) the DS is stored outside her bedroom after lights out (because that’s way too much temptation for a kiddo who really needs her sleep to be a pleasant human being).

      We told her that within those parameters, she could make her own decisions, but if we got the feeling that video games were something more to her than one nice pursuit in a world full of interesting things to do, then we might feel the need to renegotiate. Thus far it’s been pretty much a non-issue.

  10. Andi
    Andi says:

    If you read, though, you can learn about the world. Reading teaches patience and critical thinking. Video games cause the mind to rely on outside sources for constant stimulation.

  11. Colleen
    Colleen says:

    It seems this is a ocmmon concern–I’ve had this argument too, even though I haven’t had to deal with the issue yet as my kids are 2 and 5. It seems to me that kids wouldn’t have these issues of restriction and learning self-control if they didn’t even have the choice whether to play the games–if you hadn’t bought them in the first place. Like if you filled your pantry with really nasty processed foods that are engineered specifically to tempt kids, and then expected your kids to naturally regulate their appetites after time–when they just get so used to sugar and toxins that it becomes very hard to deprogram these taste preferences as adults (my opinion).

    What I’m afraid of with video games is the constant reinforcement of brain synapses of certain kinds of thought–the objectification that comes with killing people that are in your way in your mind, and having the same neurons firing in your brain as if you’re actually doing it–to the detriment of reinforcing other kinds of thought, like the critical-thinking and reflectivity that reading brings on ( –in brains that are still forming and bodies with little sense of self thus far. Maybe I’m taking it all too seriously, but video games seem much more “bread and circuses” to me than reading.

  12. Stephanie
    Stephanie says:

    Video gaming, like reading, can lead in all kinds of creative directions. My son used to play a lot of fantasy role playing games, and he got into creating his own maps and modules. He’s seriously considering a career in programming or creative development. I have never liked gaming and I’ve always felt conflicted about all the time my kids have spent playing them. But I’m glad I trusted my instinct to support my son in this interest and not limit his gaming time too strictly.

  13. Alice Bachini-Smith
    Alice Bachini-Smith says:

    The idea that reading per se is good while games per se are bad is really without logical foundation. Many of the books kids read are very limited in educational value- the idea that simply practising reading skills a lot improves literacy makes sense, but kids read constantly these days online too. My son taught himself to read aged 4… from video games! What bugs me is the “books are always good” idea- depends on the books! The child (and adult) who is good at self-directed learning will choose material that enables them to learn, because not learning is boring. We hardly even know what brain-skills games are teaching the new generation, everything is so new.

    Being a pioneer in educating your kids means being taking the real evidence seriously, and being open to new ideas that may or may not turn out brilliant in the end, but that seems fine to me. There is a huge prejudice about children playing too many games, just as TV was supposed to be terribly bad or my generation, and the Victorians didn’t trust novels. It’s hard to make conscious open-mindedness part of your parenting, but well worth the effort.

  14. Susan
    Susan says:

    TV was SUPPOSED to be terribly bad? Ahem….it is! We know for a fact that it leads to obesity since zero calories are being burned while watching t.v.; not true of any other activity! Besides that, the content of so much t.v. is so horribly stupid, mind-numbing drivel! Books are a much better choice, chosen with great care, of course, since there is so much crap being published it make me sick!

    • Sia
      Sia says:

      Reading is generally sedentary though. Piano…you’re sitting. These are just examples off the top of my head but it is true of other activities besides video games. And even then, what about the wii-exercise games?

  15. seo
    seo says:

    Hey there! This post could not be written any better! Reading through this post reminds me of my old room mate! He always kept chatting about this. I will forward this page to him. Pretty sure he will have a good read. Thanks for sharing!

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