Video Games and TV: Do They Make Kids Smarter?

An author makes a case that popular culture is beneficial for the mind.

In Woody Allen's movie Sleeper, a nerdy storeowner (played by Allen) is cryogenically frozen and defrosted after 200 years only to find that smoking, cream pies, and hot fudge, among other things, are actually healthy for you. And it seems that such an alternative universe is one that Steven Johnson, author of the controversial new book Everything Bad Is Good for You: How Today's Popular Culture Is Actually Making Us Smarter, would be comfortable and revered in.

Johnson contends that video games, certain violent TV shows like 24, and reality TV shows such as Survivor and The Apprentice are actually making kids smarter and more savvy, not more violent, aggressive, or phobic as others have suggested. He even dubs this phenomenon "the sleeper curve" as a nod to Allen's 1973 flick because just as in the movie, some of the most criticized components of society may actually be beneficial.

While some are quick to call Johnson's ideas heresy, others tend to agree with at least some of what he has to say about the learning potential of video games and television games.

In his new book, Johnson says that video games such as Tetris and SimCity actually force players to make decisions, choose, and prioritize; shows like 24 prompt viewers to make sense of what they are seeing by filling in information that is withheld or deliberately vague. What's more, certain reality shows boost emotional intelligence and teach viewers valuable lessons about what is and isn't effective at work, at home, and at play.

Pop Culture and Intelligence

"There are a number of indications that pop culture is making us smarter," Johnson tells WebMD. "The most powerful of which is the long-term trend in all modern media societies towards rising intelligence quotients (IQs)."

Johnson says that a person with an above average IQ 50 years ago would be merely average today. "A number of scholars believe that part of that increase has to do with the increased complexity of the media environment we all inhabit," he says. "Think of the kind of problem-solving and pattern recognition you have to do to operate a modern computer, compared to, say, switching channels on a radio."

Johnson says "all the major simulation games [such as] SimCity, The Sims, Age of Empires, Railroad Tycoon, etc. -- where you're simultaneously tracking dozens and dozens of shifting variables, trying to manage an entire system -- are a great cognitive workout."

"On television," Johnson notes, "it's shows like Lost, Alias, The Simpsons, Arrested Development, The West Wing, and ER that have the most challenging narrative structures."

"There is a clear trend towards increased complexity in the popular culture [including] more narrative threads (plots) per episode in a television show, more complicated social networks, increasingly layered and multivariable problems in the games and more participatory media online," he says.

For example, while Dallas, a popular 1980s nighttime soap opera chronicled the misadventures of one family, the show 24 actually tracks four families. And instead of fighting for control of the family business as they did on Dallas, the characters of 24 are trying to simultaneously save or destroy the president or the world.

Johnson has two boys, aged 2 and almost 4. "They like to watch DVDs -- all the Pixar movies, for instance, plus the classics such as Winnie The Pooh and Mary Poppins, but mostly they just want to play with their Thomas the Tank Engine train set," he says.

"In some ways, what they're doing now with the Thomas trains is what they'll be doing in a few years with their video games: mastering a complex system, learning all the different characters, building an environment, and exploring it together," he tells WebMD.

"Compared to the popular culture 30 years ago, you have to 'think' more to engage with today's entertainment: you have to make decisions, express your own ideas, analyze more complicated storylines," he says. "It's a kind of mental exercise, not unlike the mental exercise you get from, say, playing chess," Johnson says.

TV as a Learning Tool

"It is my contention that TV is, as it was intended to be, a learning tool," says Patricia A. Farrell, PhD, a clinical psychologist in Englewood Cliffs, N.J., and a medical consultant for the N.J. Department of Disability. "The Apprentice is, in my view, a great training medium for entering the dog-eat-dog world of big business," she says. "It teaches interviewing skills, planning, group participation, and all those things we know work well in a corporate environment."

"Video games can provide valuable hand-eye coordination and develop skills of strategy and anticipation," says Farrel, author of How to Be Your Own Therapist. "You can play chess and, perhaps, develop some similar skills, but most kids prefer to be active and the video games fit the bill."

Kevin Leman, a psychologist in Tucson, Ariz., and author of several books including the recent Home Court Advantage: Preparing Your Children to Be Winners in Life, says that Johnson's ideas are doing a tremendous disservice. "We are pushing kids ahead emotionally for things that they are not ready for," says this father of five, referring to some of the tumultuous dramas on television.

"I think adults have taken the license to say 'it's no big deal and kids can make their own choices,'" he says. But "kids are like a delicate plant. We don't expose them to everything, we protect them," he says.

A Call for More Imagination Time

In Home Court Advantage, Leman calls for more creativity and downtime over video games and television shows. "This is what is missing -- the time for kids to use their imagination," he says. "Kids today cocoon at age 7 or 8, they sit in front of their computers and they log on and talk to their buddies."

Leman believes that "benign old video like Centipede and Pacman were pretty innocuous and entertaining; we are now blowing people up and shooting semi-automatic and automatic weapons."

"There is a difference between being appropriately entertained with something that's benign and something that is violent," says Leman.

A new study in the Journal of Personality adds some weight to the claim that violent video games can increase aggression. The study of more than 200 college students found that those who had played more violent video games as teenagers reported engaging in more aggressive behavior.

Of Violence and Video Games

Johnson tells WebMD that he believes "there is very little correlation between fictional violence and real-world violence."

According to Johnson, "The television shows and video games have never been more violent -- at least in terms of the specific bloodshed and gore that they show. And yet we've just experienced the single most dramatic drop in violent crime in U.S. history."

Johnson adds, "perhaps we should be wondering if violent games 'reduce' violent crime, by letting people vent their violent feelings in a virtual environment, and not in the real world."

In his book, Johnson points out that ultraviolent games are the exception, not the rule. "If you look at the bestseller lists month after month, you'll find that the great majority of the games are nonviolent, whether they're simulation games like The Sims (the most popular of all time), or sports games, or Dungeons and Dragons-like quest games," he says. "Grand Theft Auto got a huge amount of coverage for its violent content, but it was an anomaly and most parents out there simply aren't aware of that."

Evaluating Video Games for Kids

In Grand Theft Auto, the player takes on the role of criminal and typically rises in the ranks of organized crime over the course of the game. Scenarios may include bank robberies, assassinations, and gang warfare.

Parents should "evaluate the shows and games not just in terms of violence or obscenity, but in terms of the mental engagement that they require," he says.

Los Angeles-based psychotherapist Robert Butterworth, PhD, agrees. "Boys need to slay dragons and play games with action figures of cowboys and Indians," he says. "They need to be in a fantasy where they are conquering heroes; suppressing this may have long-term effects that may not be good."

Butterworth tells WebMD that his 20-year-old son, now a vegetarian and a student at the University of California at Berkley, was an avid video game player. "He is a cool kid, an athlete and doesn't get into trouble." So there!

Broken homes, exposure to violence, video games, and TV do not create violent children, he says. According to Butterworth, dysfunctional parenting, children with little guilt, and accessibility to firearms with little parental supervision can create violent children.

"Most children who commit violent crime show an early combination of personality and family factors that include having trouble getting along with playmates in preschool," Butterworth says. "By second or third grade they're doing poorly in school, and have few friends. By the age of 10 they're picking fights and getting labeled by their peers as social outcasts."

What's more "they typically come from families where parents are poor at disciplining because they are either indifferent, neglectful, too coercive or they use harsh physical punishment with little love."

The Other Side of the Fence

"The disservice is that [Johnson's] message is confusing people," says Joanne Cantor, PhD, professor emerita of communication arts at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, and author of the books Mommy, I'm Scared: How TV and Movies Frighten Children and What We Can Do to Protect Them and Teddy's TV Troubles.

"When parents hear this and know that their kids like the stuff, they are more likely to say 'some people think it's good, so maybe it's not so bad,'" she says. But it is.

"There is also evidence that some people have a better chance to control their weight if they smoke, but at what cost?" she quips. "If you have to take content you know is harmful to children to get these benefits, then they are not benefits."

Parents should look at ratings in advance and get a description of what a game, TV show or movie is like before they let their kids see it, she says. "Talk to other parents and if necessary, play the game," she says. "The thing about video games is that they all start at lower levels and you have to play for hours to get to a bad part and parents should know that too."

We have to recognize that our children are growing up in a more sophisticated world, for better or for worse. How we help guide them through it remains the challenge.

Show Sources

SOURCES: Steven Johnson, author, Everything Bad Is Good for You: How Today's Popular Culture Is Actually Making Us Smarter. Kevin Leman, psychologist, Tucson, Ariz.; author, Home Court Advantage. Joanne Cantor, PhD, professor emerita of communication arts, University of Wisconsin, Madison; author, Mommy, I'm Scared: How TV and Movies Frighten Children and What We Can Do to Protect Them and Teddy's TV Trouble. Robert Butterworth, PhD, psychotherapist, Los Angeles.

© 2005 WebMD, Inc. All rights reserved. View privacy policy and trust info