TV ‘supernanny’ Jo Frost returned to UK TV screens in February, with her new show ‘Extreme Parental Guidance’ on Channel 4. The first episode is of interest to us all not because of the young girl who refused to eat nothing but sugary snacks, nor because of the genuinely heartbreaking case of a twelve year old girl who refused to leave the house without piling on make up. Besides these cases, a study by Professor Doug Gentile into the possible link between videogames and violence in children was featured. Several clips of the study itself were shown, and give us a revealing insight into how at least some such studies are conducted.
For the clearest picture of the study’s intentions and conclusions, it is necessary to put it in the context of the show. At the beginning of the show, Frost tells us that one third of UK parents think that they’re doing a ‘really bad job’. She goes on to say that she doesn’t believe this to be the case, and that these parents are “not being honest about the mistakes they’re making” which, she claims, everybody makes. What the viewer is supposed to draw from this of course is not that three thirds of UK parents are doing a bad job (which would arguably be the logical conclusion to her claims), but that no blame for badly behaved children can or should be apportioned to the parents. This way of thinking is at the heart of all ‘games/cartoons/rap music/heavy metal/chips (delete as appropriate for the week) are evil’ soapbox rants. For now however, we shall concentrate on Jo Frost’s show.
So what simple mistakes are these innocent parents making? A survey conducted by the show found that 80% of respondents admitted to bribing their children with sweets. More relevant to us however, is the issue of how long their children spend playing videogames. The times quoted were invariably in the hours, and one mother even resignedly complained that her child spends eight hours a day playing.
Eight hours? That’s bad parenting. Some of us at Critical Gamer are parents, and are or will be more than happy to see our own children play videogames – but we are well aware that eight hours a day is not healthy, not even for an adult. The woman did not say how old her child was, but surely unplugging or confiscating the console/computer is not an unrealistic consideration. It brought to mind a similar story told by a mother interviewed by BBC breakfast, who lamented the fact that her son spent hours a night playing his DS instead of going to sleep. We’re not child psychologists and in all likelihood, neither are you; but the answer to that particular problem seems obvious…
So the scene has been set. The programme is subtly assuring the audience (a large proportion of whom are likely to be troubled or worried parents) that there is no possibility of the parents of misbehaved children being at fault, and that external forces are instead to blame. Enter Professor Doug Gentile’s study.
The study is presented as an entirely scientific and unbiased one, headed by a qualified professional. Though Professor Gentile’s credentials are never explained, there is certainly no reason to doubt them. The aim of this study, we are told, is to test the possibility of violent videogames desensitising children to violence and dulling their ability to feel empathy.
Forty twelve year old boys were sat down at laptops with headphones and, at a signal, told to start playing the game they had been provided with. Twenty of the boys played a twelve rated ‘violent war game’ (the game footage was blurred so as to make it unidentifiable, but it was clearly an FPS), and twenty of the boys played a non – violent soccer (or, if you live somewhere in the world that isn’t America, football) game. Each boy played for exactly twenty minutes and then, at another signal, stopped playing and closed the laptop.
After this, the boys were then shown violent real – life news footage, which their parents had previously watched and approved. The boys’ heart rates were monitored before and during the footage, the theory being that if the violent game desensitises children to violence, the boys who played it would show little to no heart rate increase whilst watching the violent footage. The results seemed to bear this out; the average heart rate amongst those who played the war game was 86bpm before the footage, and 88bpm during. The averages of those who played the non – violent game however were 91bpm before the footage, and 99bpm during, a significant increase of close to 10%.
Those heart rates are averages, however, and the audience was not privy to the individual results. How many in each group experienced significant heart rate increases? What is the explanation for those who had been playing the non – violent game, and yet experienced only a minor increase? Most importantly, how does this definitively prove that videogames desensitise people – at the least, children – to violence?
It was enough for Frost, who declared the results to be “quite shocking”. As the narrator ominously declared, ‘just twenty minutes’ of gaming was enough to desensitise these young boys to violence. The unspoken continuation of that thought, of course, is: imagine what extended play will do to your child.
Following this, random samples of each group were taken to be interviewed by Professor Gentile, one at a time. This was to be a test for empathy. The child would sit opposite Gentile and, on the desk between them, was a pot of pens. Gentile would ask the child about their gaming habits and, at an unexpected moment, ‘accidentally’ knock the pen pot off the desk, spilling its contents across the floor. The theory here was that those who had played the non – violent game would feel empathy for Gentile and his situation, and would help pick up the pens. Those who had been playing the violent game on the other hand, would feel no empathy; and therefore show no signs of being willing to lend Gentile a hand.
It was at this point of the study that the author’s prejudices became clear. The first child was taken from the non – violent gaming group. When the pens were knocked to the floor, Gentile stopped talking and, when the boy looked unsure about what to do, started to get up from his chair – which acted as a visual cue for the boy to get off his chair and help. Frost noticed this but, rather than question the impartiality of Gentile and his study, she simply put the boy’s decision to help down to a polite nature.
It is important to note that Gentile did not repeat this action for any other child; at least, not in any of the footage that followed. Though most other children shown decided to help, leave or ignore the pens without Gentile’s interference, there was one significant exception. One of the boys from the violent gaming group looked down at the pens as soon as they fell on the floor, and seemed set to help tidy them up. Seeing this, Professor Gentile immediately distracted him with hurried words and hand gestures, in order to draw attention away from the pens and continue the conversation. In not one instance shown in the TV programme did Gentile try to distract a subject from the non – violent group in such a way. Incidentally, there was a mix of hesitation and immediacy in the reactions from this group.
The study found that while only 40% of the violent gamers helped pick up the pens, 80% of the non – violent gamers helped. The narrator described it as “a simple and revealing test with shocking results”. We agree; but for rather different reasons. At best, it proved to be an unprofessional study; and at worst, a deliberately prejudiced one.
It should also be asked, is a pot of pens falling off a desk really the best way to test a child’s sense of empathy? Especially if the interviewer shows little to no signs of concern himself. A better event, which would not have been much more difficult to set up convincingly, would have been to have the interviewer fall off his chair and show hesitation and difficulty in getting back up. Perhaps Gentile feared that such an event would result in the overwhelming majority of both groups going to help?
Furthermore it should not have been Gentile, the author of the study with access to all the facts and expectations, who interviewed the test subjects. The interviews should have been conducted in a double blind manner; that is, not only should the children not have known what was going to happen and what reaction was expected of them, but the interviewer should have been somebody with no knowledge of the associated study (and strict instructions not to encourage or discourage the child’s help). It would be foolish to presume that all similar studies with negative conclusions make the same mistakes, whether intentionally or unintentionally. It would be equally foolish, however, to presume that none of these studies are prejudiced in this way.
When the study is over, Gentile dispels any lingering doubts about his views on the link between videogames and violence by laying his cards on the table. He mentions “other studies” which have apparently shown that those who play violent videogames are “more likely to hurt than help another kid”. He fails to mention what these studies were, how many of them there were, who conducted them, when, and how and why children were able to ‘hurt’ one another. The audience of Extreme Parental Guidance are unlikely to question such matters; after all it isn’t Doug Gentile telling them this, but Professor Doug Gentile (who also goes on to say that there is never just one cause of a child’s bad behaviour and attitude, but videogames are one and “not a small one”).
Frost herself gave some Jerry Springer style thought for the day – esque advice at the end of the section. Parents must set time limits for their children’s gaming, and pay attention to the age rating on the box. Well, um… isn’t that just common sense? Besides which, the industry has been saying exactly that to governments and the media for decades. Still, a certain type of person is more likely to listen to Jo Frost than develop some common sense, and perhaps that programme helped some children.
Channel 4 failed to respond to our request to get in contact with Frost and/or Gentile.
Just a few weeks later, the BBC’s Newsround (a regular news programme made especially for children) published the results of a survey it had commissioned. The survey regarding sleeping patterns had been sent out to various schools, and covered one thousand children aged 9 – 11. Most respondents said that they went to bed at 21:30, with approximately 25% saying that their bedtime was 22:00 or later. 50% of those questioned said that they weren’t getting enough sleep, and wanted more.
Various reasons were listed for the late bedtimes, including TV and mobile phones… but with a sad inevitability, the BBC reporting put the emphasis on videogames. Nowhere, oddly, was lax parenting mentioned as a possible reason for children not going to bed early enough. As a brief aside, we’d like to question the reliability of 50% of the children saying they wanted more sleep. Indeed, if they’re going to bed so late, it’s highly likely that at least half of them would want more sleep. Bear in mind, however, that the children received the survey at (or via) their school. Were some of them perhaps hoping that if they said they wanted more sleep, the school day would start later?
The world suffers under a culture of ‘it’s not my fault’, and the flak videogames often get from media and governments is just one symptom of it. How many times have you heard a story of an American toddler accidentally killing themselves or a sibling with their parent’s gun, or a disaffected teenager going on a killing spree with his parent’s gun… or one he bought over the counter? How and why do these things happen? It has absolutely nothing to do with the cheap, legal, and widespread availability of firearms in America – or so entirely neutral bodies such as the NRA would have you believe. I have my gun, I want my gun, I like having my gun. It’s not my fault if some bozo can’t keep his gun locked up. It’s not my fault if some kid plays too many games and listens to too much Marilyn Manson, and shoots up his school or holds up a liquor store. It’s not my fault, it’s somebody else’s.
It’s not my fault.