By John Salak –
Another indication that video games may be a boon for young children; a new study of almost 2,000 young ones found that those who played these games for at least three hours a day performed better on cognitive skills than others who never played.
The research relied on data on children ages 9 and 10 from the ongoing Adolescent Brain Cognitive Development (ABCD) Study, supported by the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA). The results specifically cited the enhanced performance of gamers regarding cognitive skills tests involving impulse control and working memory.
“This study adds to our growing understanding of the associations between playing video games and brain development,” explained NIDA Director Nora Volkow, M.D. “Numerous studies have linked video gaming to behavior and mental health problems. This study suggests the cognitive benefits of this popular pastime are worthy of further investigation.”
Previous research from a few sources has investigated the relationship between video gaming and cognitive behavior, but the underlying neurobiological mechanisms still haven’t been thoroughly examined. This latest study attempted to overcome this gap by having scientists at the University of Vermont examine survey, cognitive and brain imaging data from the children in the ABCD study. They separated these children into two groups, those who reported playing no video games and those who played video games for three hours per day or more. This level exceeds the recommended amount of screen time for even older children.
The results showed that the children who reported playing video games for three or more hours per day were faster and more accurate on cognitive tasks than those who never played. They also observed the differences in cognitive function between the two groups and differences in brain activity.
For example, functional MRI brain imaging analyses found that these video game-playing children showed higher brain activity in regions of the brain associated with attention and memory than those who never played. These gaming children also showed more brain activity in frontal brain regions associated with more cognitively demanding tasks while reporting less brain activity in brain regions related to vision.
The patterns may stem from practicing tasks related to impulse control and memory while playing video games, which the researchers theorized can be cognitively demanding. Beyond this, the comparatively low activity in visual areas among gamers may result from the brain becoming more efficient at visual processing.
The research team also noted no increase in depression, violence and aggressive behavior, something previous studies of gamers have cited.
The gamers did tend to report higher mental health and behavioral issues compared to children who played no video games, although this association was not statistically significant. The research team, therefore, stressed it is important to track any changes in these areas as these gamers mature.
While confident that their findings are accurate, the study noted that video games may not cause enhanced cognitive skills but may indicate that cognitively stronger children may like video games. Consequently, the study’s authors stressed their findings should not encourage parents to let their children have unlimited screen time.
A wave of research is surfacing in the last few years that indicates an association between gaming and cognitive abilities. Karolinska Institutet in Sweden, for example, reported earlier this year that U.S. children who spent an above-average time playing video games increased their intelligence more than the average. The Swedish researchers noted that TV watching or social media had neither a positive nor a negative effect.
“We didn’t examine the effects of screen behavior on physical activity, sleep, well-being or school performance, so we can’t say anything about that,” reported Torkel Klingberg, professor at the Karolinska Institutet. “But our results support the claim that screen time generally doesn’t impair children’s cognitive abilities and that playing video games can help boost intelligence. It is consistent with several experimental studies of video game playing.”
The U.S. researchers took a similar position based on their work.
“While we cannot say whether playing video games caused superior neurocognitive performance, it is an encouraging finding. One that we must continue to investigate in these children as they transition into adolescence and young adulthood,” said Bader Chaarani, Ph.D., assistant professor of psychiatry at the University of Vermont. “Many parents today are concerned about the effects of video games on their children’s health and development. As these games continue to spread among young people, it is crucial that we better understand both the positive and negative impact that such games may have.”