Video games have gained a notoriety over the years for their supposed impact on children, from mental health and social problems to missing out on exercise. However, a large new US study published in JAMA Network Open suggests that there may also be cognitive benefits associated with the popular pastime.
Lead author Bader Chaarani, an assistant professor of psychiatry at the University of Vermont, told Agence France-Presse (AFP) that he was naturally drawn to the topic as an avid gamer himself with expertise in neuroimaging.
Previous research has focused on harmful effects, linking gaming to depression and increased aggression.
But those studies were limited by their relatively small numbers of participants, especially those that involved brain imaging, Charaani said.
For the new research, Chaarani and his colleagues analyzed data from the large and ongoing National Institutes of Health-funded Adolescent Brain Development (ABCD) study.
They examined survey responses, cognitive test scores, and brain scans from approximately 2,000 9- and 10-year-olds who were divided into two groups: those who never played games and those who played three hours or more a day.
This threshold was chosen because it exceeds the American Academy of Pediatrics guidelines of one or two hours of video game screen time for older children.
Impulses and memory
Each group was evaluated in two tasks.
The first involved seeing arrows pointing left or right, with children being asked to push left or right as quickly as possible.
They were also told not to press anything if they saw a “stop” signal to measure how well they could control their impulses.
In the second task, they were shown faces of people and then asked in a test of their working memory whether or not the following picture, which was shown later, matched.
After using statistical methods to control for variables that could confound the results, such as parental income, IQ and mental health symptoms, the team found that video gamers consistently performed better on both tasks.
While completing the tasks, the children’s brains were scanned using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). The brains of video game players showed more activity in areas associated with attention and memory.
“The results raise the intriguing possibility that video games can provide cognitive training with measurable neurocognitive effects,” the authors concluded in their paper.
Right now, it’s impossible to know whether better cognitive performance leads to or results from more gaming, Chaarani said.
The team hopes to get a clearer answer when the study continues and they look at the same children again at an older age.
This will also help rule out other potential play factors such as children’s home environment, exercise and sleep quality.
Future studies could also benefit from looking at what genres of games children play – although at age 10, children tend to favor action games like Fortnite or Assassin’s Creed.
“Obviously, excessive screen time is bad for overall mental health and physical activity,” Chaarani said.
But he said the results showed that video games may be a better use of screen time than watching YouTube videos, which has no discernible cognitive effects.
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