Is the amount of time kids spend playing games declining?

What! That’s ridiculous! Well actually it isn’t, but it is really hard to prove. Let me explain, using Australian ABS and Screen Australia data — rather than US data which is often used in Australian media reports and being indicative of Australian family media choices.

Before 2008, the ABS collected data on children’s ‘discretionary leisure time’. One activity for this was ‘computer and electronic games’. Between 2000 and 2008, the percentage of kids doing this actually fell. In 2009 they changed the data set so that ‘computer and video games’ became on thing kids did under ‘screen time’. This basically means that we can’t compare post 2008 data sets with that which came before.

During the same period kids use of TV and Video remained at 97% meaning all kids watch TV and videos …  as well as play games (67% in 2008). Also in 2008 the group which produces data for the Games Industry (comprised of many media entertainment companies, distributors and retailers) decided that ‘computer games’ meant PC games and ‘video games’ meant console games. Everything else became ‘other‘. This class includes DLC, apps and subscriptions. They don’t give much data on that these days, but they too claim ‘computer and video game’ use declined. In 2008, the industry was under a lot of media pressure as the debate about ‘media violence’ became a popular cultural debate online.

We may suspect, or feel like ‘games’ are used more — but that is the power of media messages rather than a depth of study. We can’t rely on one study by Bond University and The Games Industry to say ‘games are growing’ but we can use it to fuel the ongoing media-panic associated with games (and parenting problems). Research tells us the major public health problems in modern society result from an accumulation of multiple causal factors, and for this reason the public health approach to understanding and dealing with those problems is the risk factor approach. Unfortunately, many people who seem to understand the probabilistic nature of causality in medical domains have great difficulty in the media violence domain (Anderson & Gentile, 2008).

Why would you care? If you concerned about video games it is important to consider media-reports of ‘game addiction’ or ‘over use’ are almost always based a composite ‘history’ of games from the late 1990s and a mixture of medical and media violence ‘facts’. They stem from clinicians claims ‘video games’ could (important word COULD) have the same ‘addictive’ qualities as gambling and other socially negative behaviors.

Take a breath for a moment because two questions have dominated public debate about media violence since the 1930s: (1) Does exposure to violent media have harmful effects on youth? and (2) How should society handle this problem? Now think about the last things you read about video games and chances are that this is the narrative — because its a proven attention grabber and yet without any resolution in almost 80 years.

It’s pointless to claim games are increasingly used over other discretionary leisure time (as being a kid problem). The use of SOME games by SOME kids might be increasing, but this is far from causing addiction or violent action. I might give us reason to think about why SOME kids might act the way they do — but these behaviors are always MULTI CAUSAL and the convergence of multiple risk factors.

What has continued to be shown by the ABS is that kids — given a choice of leisure activity — prefer to play outside and with others (49%). What parents need to wrap their heads around is how to manage media and communications CONVERGENCE in the home towards maintaining the family unity, entertainment and health.

Sadly few seem too interested in this because its quite confronting to think that when you bought that iPhone 4, you radically altered every aspect of family life. It’s the Back to the Future plot, but without a flux capacitor or much public funding or policy to try and tackle a growing gap in public knowledge and support. It’s organisations such as Relationships Australia that appear to be mostly picking up the pieces right now.