Teachers competing with video games for children’s attention

Bruno Cooke May 24, 2020
Teachers competing with video games for children’s attention

The covid-19 pandemic is forcing teachers to take their education online. But new virtual learning platforms have technological issues that need ironing out, and systems of digital learning need troubleshooting. And all this at a time when children associate screens more than ever with leisure than with learning.

Teachers disadvantaged from the start

At their very core, video games are designed to hold the attention of those who play them. They make us want more.

Games are sensory overloads packed with stimulation. Fast-paced graphics, mesmerising soundscapes, and the existence of other real life agents – such as in massively multiplayer online role-playing games (MMORPGs) – all make for a stimulating experience.

And no truer is this especially for younger audiences.

The UK video game industry is a lucrative one. Worth a record £5.7bn, it’s the highest it’s ever been, and is roughly the same amount our government spends on educating almost a million children for a whole year.

Investors are pouring money into the business of holding children’s attention, and the continuous output of the latest games to serve that demand is sure to continue.

Lacking the same funding and resources, teachers simply do not have the capacity to do the same. They are fighting against big business to hold children’s attention. Who is bound to win?

A new education crisis

It comes as no surprise, therefore, that during the first months of widespread use of online learning platforms, children up and down the country have been finding it difficult to concentrate.

Lock-down’s disruptions are numerous, with calls to helplines such as the NSPCC and Childline on the rise.

But our parents are struggling, too. Almost half the parents of secondary school children report real difficulties in supporting home-based learning, with an even larger proportion among parents of primary school children.

While the reasons for this are unique to each household, it is clear that part of it is down to the fact that children are struggling to associate learning with digital screens.

School provides so much more than merely textbooks: children are accustomed to learning environments organised in very specific, and deliberate, ways.

Schools are places of learning and social development. Homes are set up differently, and moving education onto screened devices is bound to cause problems.

Whether it be for the purpose of socialising or slashing, shooting or gem-busting, screens are sites of leisure. 

Video games and attention deficit disorder: is there a link?

Teachers have long been battling video games since their popularisation.

More studies are being conducted into the relationship between video games and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). While the evidence is inconclusive, there is a wealth of research claiming a causal link between spending many hours per week gaming, and having difficulty concentrating on school work. 

  • A team of California researchers reported last year in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) that ‘teens who are heavy users of digital devices are twice as likely as infrequent users to show ADHD symptoms in the future’. 
  • A study published in Science Daily concludes that, while limited gaming time can provide benefits to children, ‘too much can be detrimental’. The report links conduct problems to spending just nine hours a week gaming. Today’s norm is significantly higher. 
  • In a three-year study of some 3,000 children and teens from Singapore, a group of researchers concluded that gaming was not helping inattentive kids. In fact, ‘the heaviest gamers become more impulsive and less attentive’ (Healthline).

A singular source of bafflement

It can baffle parents and educators alike to see children focusing for hours on a video game, only to find it impossible to concentrate for two minutes on schoolwork.

Douglas Gentile runs the Media Research Lab at Iowa State University. He said: “I’ve had numerous parents come up to me and tell me that their child has ADHD and the only thing they could focus on for two hours at a time is video games.”

Children’s games constantly shift focus, and are replete with instant gratification.

While a child may seemingly concentrate for hours on a video game, this bears little relation to the type of focus required for extended bouts of mental activity during lessons.

Games and cartoons are constantly changing, therefore demand a different kind of attention.

In some ways, video games can fill a void left by unsuccessful socialising or poor performance at school. But too heavy a dependence on those boosts can evolve into a vicious cycle.

Teachers face a mammoth task

Teachers have always had to adapt and compete to retain children’s attention for their development. Creating online learning tools that capture children’s attention, while those children are sat at their computers, in a location those children associate with leisure activities, is going to be enormously difficult.

To compete with this using word processing software, PowerPoint and a few YouTube videos is no easy feat.

The ‘gamification’ of the education process could be something we will start to see more of, as educators look to use what are essentially gaming consoles in the eyes of children for learning purposes.

Teaching is the first of their duties, but not the last

Besides regular duties, teachers bear innumerable burdens. Be they pastoral, administrative, or social, teachers play roles it can be hard to quantify.

Something as ostensibly simple as making sure no pupil feels lost can be very taxing.

Now, amid online teaching platforms and digital workloads, such difficulties are altered and multiplied.

Teachers are faced with unanswerable questions and are expected to fix seemingly unfixable problems.

And not only do need to be highly qualified educators, they now need to be well-versed in the technology they use in the classroom.

Traditional issues facing students (such as refusing to speak during lessons, or waiting until the end of the lesson to report that they missed the first point) are being accompanied by issues that a digitised classroom brings.

The net is broader on a digital interface; it is easier for students to slip through, unnoticed, deliberately or otherwise.

On top of this, 69% of primary teachers and 62% of secondary teachers are still dividing their time in the lock-down between home and school (BBC).

They are managing their own children while digitally babysitting dozens, even hundreds, of others. 

Teachers are particularly vulnerable during lock-down

Constant parental supervision of students’ interaction with such platforms piles extra pressure on teachers.

When every teaching resource can be examined in real-time by parents, mistakes are bound to be found.

Online materials, word-processed rather than handwritten, immortalise minor errors such as spelling mistakes or a misclick.

Human error can easily be taken for neglect, or worse, incompetency.

It is impossible for any one teacher to run the immaculate virtual classrooms some parents expect.

Children have been weaned, over the course of a generation, off traditional learning media.

Video games, apps, interactive websites and children’s television programmes are taking over from books, educational toys, one-on-one active vocal learning, and other traditional methods of learning. 

Last words

One mote of advice given to teachers is simply to ‘be realistic’ (Headteacher-Update). ‘Lower your standards. These are not ordinary times. Just getting through the day can be an achievement for many of us at present.’

The same goes for all of us. Each family feels the pressures of lock-down differently. Indeed, some feel the pressures much less than others. It is important for us all to be realistic in our expectations of others.

And remember that, according to one major study of Australian students, the educational development of our young can be impacted just as much – if not more – by forces beyond the classroom.

‘Class factors, such as “teacher quality”, don’t appear to be the driving force for why students differ in their NAPLAN scores. Our results suggest individual differences in how students develop may be based more on environmental influences outside the classroom.’

The Conversation

In other words, results are largely out of teachers’ hands.

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Bruno Cooke has been a freelance journalist since 2019, primarily with GRV Media. He was an early contributor to The Focus, and has written for HITC, Groundviews and the Sheffield University newspaper – he earned his MA in Global Journalism there in 2021. He’s the Spoken Word Poetry Editor for The Friday Poem, and self-published his debut novel Reveries in 2019, which his mum called both a “fine read” and “excellent Christmas present”. Bruno has lived in China, Sri Lanka and the Philippines and likes, among other things: bicycle touring, black and white Japanese films, pub quizzes, fermentation and baklava. In 2023, Bruno will set off with his partner on a round-the-world cycle.