Boys + screen time: the real 411

The question that parents ask me the most often is: “Are video games/computers/television dangerous for my son?” One problem with responding to that question is that these forms of technology haven’t been around for very long and the research that is done on the effects of technology have most often used university students as subjects.

boy and screen image
Image credit: Stocksy

It seems as if technology has been here forever, but I was 12 when my family got our first TV – black and white of course – and we were early adopters. The first video game I played was Pong which used a TV as the monitor (since personal computers did not exist in 1976 when the game came out for home use). The first personal computer I used was in 1985 when I went to work for the boys’ school – an Apple IIe which was booted up with a real 5 ¼” floppy disc. The point of this trip down memory lane is that while our children have always had technology, most of us have not or have had limited access to technology until fairly recently. We grew up without technology or with limited access.

When I talk to parents about the problems of hovering over their children, I ask them if their parents had constant access when they were young. Of course not, since pocket-sized cell phones did not exist when we were young. So why do they think they need to be able to know where their children are at all times? The answer I get is that the modern world is so dangerous, which isn’t actually true, but that is a topic for another blog post.

Back to technology, is it really dangerous? According to Phillip Zimbardo in a new book entitled Man (Dis)connected: How Technology has Sabotaged What it Means to be Male, a boy spends, on average, 44 hours a week engaged in using technology for every half an hour he spends talking with his father. I’m a bit dubious about that factoid considering the scarcity of adult males available to boys, but I’d bet most boys don’t spend much more time talking to their mothers, either. It’s the lack of conversation that is the real problem. Using technology, children take in information, but they rarely dish out much information and strangely enough, it is through the give-and-take of conversation that we learn about ourselves.

According to Zimbardo, the reason that boys are increasingly immersing themselves into cyberspace is that their own worlds are so unsatisfying. They find school difficult and, because so many of the teachers are female, unresponsive to their needs or interests. The girls are passing them by and the boys don’t have the skills to relate to others anyway. They have no fathers to show them the way through life and the world looks so scary. Their mothers are perfectly happy to let them sit in front of their computers because there, the mothers think they are safe.

The problem is that boys are not very introspective – they are all about action and doing. Research from a year ago pointed out that the brains of girls and boys don’t actually process information the same way (Ingalhalikar, Smith et al. 2014). This study confirmed what the casual observer has often noted that the female brain links information so that when a girl thinks about an event, her thoughts lead to other related events, and so forth. The male brain, on the other hand, tends to compartmentalize information so that a male will think about one episode and that’s it. The result is that males can be shocked to find out that other males have similar problems or responses to the world. It just never occurs to them that their feelings are shared by others. And, as you will remember, males are very emotional due to the structure of their brain – they just don’t often learn an emotional vocabulary. Boys need to interact with others to develop an understanding of themselves. Playing video games is active to be true, but it does not provide any interaction with others.

So the answer is, yes, technology is very dangerous for boys, but not for the reason that most think.It’s not the content that is so dangerous,It’s the isolation that technology brings that is devastating to boys. They need to be out with their friends kicking a ball around the back yard, they need to be working on a project with someone older, they need to be doing something. Letting boys lounge around is the real danger – get your boy up and off of the sofa. Get him active and involved with his world. Yes, he can play video games as much as he wants, as long as he spends an equal amount of time outdoors or engaged in some activity. It is through interaction with his world that your boy will find out what he is good at and where he wants to spend his life. Yes, he will make mistakes, but it is through making mistakes that boys learn how to succeed. Give your son the chance to interact with others, particularly adult males. Unplug the machines and plug him into reality.