Children may get a cognitive boost from playing video games
A compelling new study published in JAMA Network Open suggests there may be some cognitive benefits associated with playing video games. The research looked at around 2,000 children and found those that regularly play video games performed better on some cognitive skill tests compared to children who never play video games.
It is generally assumed that video games are a negative influence on children's well-being and development, although there is very little actual scientific evidence to back this up. A growing body of more sophisticated modern research is finding the effects of digital screen time on children are complicated and multifaceted.
For example, a 2019 study from the University of Oxford found screen time in teenagers has little effect on mental well-being. And a follow-up study from the same research team actually found a small correlation between playing video games and positive well-being. More recently, a striking study from a team of European researchers indicated playing video games could even boost a child's intelligence.
This new research focused particularly on the cognitive and neurobiological impact of playing video games in a big cohort of young children. Looking at data from a large ongoing project called the Adolescent Brain Cognitive Development (ABCD) Study, the researchers surveyed around 2,000 children aged nine and 10 years old. About 1,200 participants reported never playing video games while around 800 reported playing a least three hours of video games per day.
On cognitive tests evaluating impulse control and working memory, the children who played video games performed better than the children who didn't play video games. The ABCD study also offered fMRI brain imaging data for all participants, revealing the video gaming children displayed greater neural activity in regions associated with memory and attention.
“Many parents today are concerned about the effects of video games on their children’s health and development, and as these games continue to proliferate among young people, it is crucial that we better understand both the positive and negative impact that such games may have," explained Bader Chaarani, lead author on the new study. “While we cannot say whether playing video games regularly caused superior neurocognitive performance, it is an encouraging finding, and one that we must continue to investigate in these children as they transition into adolescence and young adulthood."
As interesting as these findings are, the researchers are cautious to stress the many caveats that accompany the study. No causal relationship between gaming and cognition can be concluded from this data, so the researchers stress these findings do not imply all children will be cognitively better off for playing hours of video games every day. Plus the dataset doesn't distinguish between types of video games so its unclear whether certain styles of game (eg, first-person shooters or puzzle games) are more beneficial than others
But what Chaarani does indicate is that the results suggest there may not be significant cognitive harms in children playing video games. At least based on the specific metrics looked at in this study. And Chaarani speculates video games may, at the very least, be no worse than watching TV.
The ABCD study, from which the data in this research comes, is ongoing and follows over 10,000 young people as they move into adulthood. So the particular cohort analyzed here will be retested over the coming years and investigators will be able to study whether these cognitive differences between gamers and non-gamers persist, increase or decline.
The new study was published in the journal JAMA Network Open.