The first six months of 2009 were an awesome time to be a parent. If you’d purchased a first-generation iPhone, you’d had it long enough that it no longer seemed unimaginable to hand it to your child. It was still kind of a strange thing to do, so you might get perplexed or concerned glances, but if you could put up with the staring it was incredibly liberating to have a way to instantly silence a whiny or impatient child. Best of all, Angry Birds didn’t exist yet, and the games that did exist weren’t all that compelling for little ones. When you handed your iPhone to your kid, you actually stood a decent chance of getting it back.
Seven years later, I can only dream about getting my kid to hand over an iPhone without a struggle. Ditto for a tablet or laptop. And good luck getting my kid to wrap up a gaming session on the Xbox, Playstation, or Wii.
Well, one of my kids: the boy. Our daughter is far less likely to lose her tiny mind over the end of game time, and also, less likely to wake me up at 5 am in order to watch video games on YouTube.
When I commiserate with other tech-tortured parents, this seems to be a common pattern: yes, there are some girls who get really into video gaming, but it seems like it’s far more frequently an issue for little boys. Is this yet another case of parents making broad generalizations based on personal observation and preconceived notions about gender, or is there really a difference in how boys and girls game?
The data shows that the differences are real. Douglas Gentile’s 2009 study of Pathological Video-Game Use Among Youth Ages 8 to 18 found that boys are much more likely to be daily gamers, and much less likely to refrain from gaming.
And when it comes to pathological use —that is, the kind of gaming that makes parents tear their hair out — that too is more prevalent among boys. Gentile found pathological levels of gaming in almost 12% of boys, but less than 3% of girls.
Recognizing that there is a gender gap isn’t the same as explaining it, however. The key question is whether this difference stems from male dominance of the gaming industry (perhaps leading to the production of games that are more appealing to boys), or from some innate difference in what kids find enjoyable and appealing.
Looking at the brains of gamers may provide an answer. As reported in 2008, a group of Stanford researchers put 22 young people in MRI machines so they could see what happens to the brains of video game players. The results showed that gaming did more to activate the brain’s reward centers in male subjects than in females. In other words, video games are more rewarding for men at a physiological level.
The Stanford study looked at only one type of video game, however: a Pong-like game in which players had to keep a ball from hitting a wall. Another 2008 study, this one on gender differences in game preferences, found that boys were a lot more likely to enjoy active (fighting) or strategic (conquering) game play; girls were more drawn to creative play.
Perhaps the Stanford researchers would have observed a different pattern of reward activation if they’d asked their research subjects to design a house in The Sims (an example of creative play) instead of just offering an example of the kind of active play that boys prefer.
For those of us who not only want to understand the gender differences in obsessive gaming, but also manage those obsessions in our children, even these partial clues can be of practical use. First, it’s important that we focus not only on blunting our sons’ enthusiasm for technology, but also, igniting that enthusiasm in our daughters: giving girls access to creative gaming experiences (as well as teaching them to use creative software like Photoshop or Sketchup) is crucial to ensuring that they don’t grow up seeing technology as their brothers’ unique passion.
Second, for those of us who worry about our boys’ excessive interest in gaming, there may be a path to enjoyment without obsession. Moving boys away from their most preferred gaming activities (strategic and active games) and into other kinds of gaming (like explorative games, which are also highly rated by boys, or social and problem-solving games) may be more successful simply by being less rewarding. Research that examines neurological responses to different game types would help us understand whether these other game modes are less likely to trigger the brain’s reward and addiction centers, but meanwhile, parents can let direct observation do the job: if your son is having trouble separating from a particular game, it may simply be too rewarding for him to manage effectively.
There’s a larger lesson here, too. For all the media hype around kids and screens, it’s really hard for parents to translate available research into practical game plans. Much of the research on kids and screens is either too general (treating all screen time as comparable) or too narrow (looking at the effect of one particular online activity on one particular population).
Most parents aren’t making an all-or-nothing choice about their kids’ use of screens: they’re trying to decide which kinds of activities are constructive, and which kinds of screen time to avoid. If we’re going to help parents make those choices in a way that’s guided by research, we need more research into the specific effects of different kinds of online activity.