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Keeping a Hawk-Eye on those miserable Wii kids

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Column The idea that Britain is the worst place in the developed world to be a child has been popping up in comment pieces ever since February this year, when The Children's Society announced its new website. This month for the first time, computer games were added to the list of demons tormenting British youth.

Most technology-centric thinkers will spot the failure of logic right away: the report (still in progress) doesn't actually seem to say that computer games themselves are dangerous. To quote one "expert" who commented on the latest episode from The Good Childhood Inquiry:

Larne GP Brian Dunn says he sees the result of increasing inactivity among children in his working life.

He said: "There are problems caused by an absence of outside playtime and children being driven to school. Children generally don't walk to school any more and there's less exposure to physical games. It's also easier to opt out of them.

"Then when children go home they just watch TV and play computer games. This is going to cause ill health in the future."

What the experts are actually saying is that kids ought to get out more. What the audience seems to be hearing is that the problem isn't that they are trapped indoors; it's what they're doing indoors that's the apparent problem.

And what we ought perhaps to worry more about is whether this may even be true.

As the adverts for "healthy breakfast" products often say, cornflakes can help you lose weight if you have an otherwise normal, balanced diet. Which is to say: if you take cereal and treat it to the point where it's so thoroughly processed and desiccated that it won't even rot, the harm done can be rendered irrelevant if you also eat fresh fruit and milk and other sources of complete nourishment.

Similarly, it's quite possible that for a kid who spends 80% of their leisure out in a field or climbing trees or playing basketball or mountain biking, the short time spent watching widescreen displays would cause no harm whatever.

But the time of "Ender's Game" - the epic SF saga where an invading alien swarm is foiled in its attempt to destroy Earth, by kids playing video games - has given way to a realisation that maybe, there are good as well as bad digital worlds.

Once, games were praised for helping develop hand-eye co-ordination and spatial intelligence. These days, the dream seems to be some kind of brain gymnasium, where you do mental arithmetic on a Nintendo and get mentally younger.

On your first day of exercise, you will take a series of tests and get a score that determines how old your brain is. This number is called your "DS Brain Age".

Probably, Ben Goldacre's demolition of the original Brain Gym went too far, but it's well worth a read:

I've just kicked the Brain Gym Teacher's Edition around the room for two minutes and I'm feeling minty fresh. Taking a break and doing some exercise is obviously great for improving performance. Is that all you get with Brain Gym in schools, or does it really come parcelled up with the nonsense? I've seen the books.

His point is the crux: what you need in order to get healthy is a lifestyle which approximates most closely to the physical and social activities that formed the environment in which humanity evolved.

In moderation, the PC display can enhance that.

Suburban life means long journeys, each day, to our places of work and study and play. I'm unusually fortunate in living in a spot in North London where I can actually walk from my home to a small reservoir where I can go sailing twice a week, but when that reservoir was threatened with closure, I faced an alternative journey involving driving for a minimum of 30 minutes just to reach a lake. I'm also fortunate in having a commute to work which is just as far as the dog wants to walk after I've fed him, because he obviously wants to come back home, and that's where I work.

But most of my best friends are people I never see any more. Without CIX and Facebook and LinkedIn, they would be "do you remember?" people. It's important to remember that I'm not "sitting in front of a screen" - I'm chatting to friends, maintaining social links, and discussing things from Tolkien to jokes, from the Euthyphro Dilemma to urban traffic management. This is important for health, too.

The problem isn't that the PC distracts us from real life. It is, in many ways, as real as treacle. But it doesn't provide physical activity of the sort our bodies expect in order to stay healthy.

Years ago, when Australia beat England at cricket, it was possible to point out that of course, young Australian kids were going to spend more time bowling, batting and fielding, than British brats; there was nothing else to do in Australia! In the Old Country, however, there was far more choice of activities, including amateur theatre, debating societies, high quality concerts, art galleries, and... you name it.

The argument, today, falls flat. Our kids aren't playing cricket because the authorities have sold off their playgrounds to make a brief profit for speculative land development. I would guess that living within a mile radius of where I'm sitting right now, there are more than enough youngsters with the potential to play cricket, tennis, hockey, or any other outdoor sport, at Olympic level - kids who, if they could actually get to a swimming pool or an arena or a field, would win Gold.

The reason they aren't there is that the fields are gone. Blaming the computers, which are all they have left, is obviously wrong. But equally, spotting that logical fallacy does not mean that "computer games are good for you" either.

Anyway, what's the difference - seriously - between a computer game, and Hawk-Eye? ®

Any thoughts? Contact the writer by bonking on the button above. You know the drill.

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