The impact of Marshmallows on the DS generation

10 07 2011

In 1972 Professor Walter Mischel at Stanford University devised a novel way to torment small children.

It should be noted that tormenting small children was not the aim of the study. The aim was to see what techniques some children used to overcome temptation and the differences to those used by children who surrendered to temptation. It was only when it was followed up years later when the children were teenagers that the impact of this ability to delay gratification on the rest of their lives began to become clear.

The study went something like this. A small child, aged approximately 3 to 5 years of age was led into a room where there were a number of treats on display. These included the eponymous marshmallow. The child was allowed to select one treat. At the point at which they were about to consume the treat, the researcher offered them a deal.

One marshmallow now. Or, wait a few minutes and have two marshmallows when the researcher came back. There was a third option – if you chose to wait then changed your mind, you could ring a bell, the researcher would return but you only got one marshmallow. Approximately 30% of children were able to wait and get two marshmallows.

The Marshmallow Experiment is probably well-known to anyone who has done Intro Psych. When followed up as teenagers, those who were able to delay gratification had higher grades. Even later on, those who were unable to delay gratification were more likely to use drugs or be overweight. The ability to wait to get a better reward rather than gobbling up quick and easy rewards now seemed to be a fundamental precursor to success.

Delayed gratification was seem as aligned to long term goals and perseverance – study to get a degree, save to buy a house, start a business. All of these things require a long-term view of life, to understand why it is worth persevering with something that is not immediately rewarding.

So how does this impact on the DS generation? OK, so to start with I am not anti-DS games. I would never have survived long car-trips with my children without plugging them into Mario-kart and Pokemon. And I am quite a fan of the Tomb-raider Series for Playstation (although Lara Croft’s impossible figure and flexibility puts Barbie to shame in terms of physical impossibility).

But if you are going to learn something new, you practice. And what my children are practicing on DS / Playstation / Xbox / Wii etc is a warped version of Newton’s third law of motion – every action receives an immediate reaction. Neuroscientist Baroness Susan Greenfield warns that the impact of screen-culture is to develop shorter attention spans, reliance on instant gratification and self-centredness. And this is what children’s growing, developing, learning brains are being trained to.

The other thing they are learning is that entertainment comes from external input. They have no tolerance for boredom. My response “It’s good to be bored – it makes your brain work to entertain you” was recently echoed in an Advertiser article, which is now, to my children’s disgust, laminated and stuck to the fridge door. If it’s printed in a newspaper, it must be right, right? The children remain unconvinced.

As well as my annoying sayings, the second front in the fight-back – less welcome – is “No-Screen Sunday”. From first thing in the morning until 5pm at night, there are no screens on. No TV, no computers, no DS. The only exception is for homework.

At first, of course, I was the meanest mother in the world (I have explained that “mean” is part of the job description but they look at me blankly). But gradually, they have actually started playing together, reading, riding their bikes. Doing things that involve live human interaction and/or physical movement on their part. Maybe I am channelling my 1970’s childhood, but it seems like a good thing.

There’s no getting away from screen culture. It is here to stay. Many jobs are dependent on screens, study now requires computer literacy for researching, writing and submitting. My current study and much of my last two degrees were conducted online. It is a major form of entertainment and a source of information.

But No Screen Sunday just goes to show, there is life after all.

PS: The New Yorker printed an amusing story about one child who worked out where the other treats were being stored, broke into it and helped himself. According to most of the “Success” coaches who coach thinking differently and not being limited by externally imposed rules, this child should be the most successful of all. Or perhaps a criminal. Turns out he works in the creative arts industry. Maybe a different type of thinking is good for a different type of success.

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7 responses

10 07 2011

I’ve heard about this before, and I love your commentary to go with the story. Good stuff. If only I could get over my own screen addiction. Facebook here I come!

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