Ask any parent how they feel about their child spending hours playing video games and you’ll likely hear concerns about possible adverse effects on mental health and cognitive performance. However, a new study is suggesting the opposite: researchers have now found there could be cognitive benefits associated with the popular pastime.
Games remain a contentious and hotly debated topic; on one hand, there are concerns about the negative impact of computer games on children, but on the other hand, there's an increasing number of studies showing that video games could also produce positive effects on the brain. This new study also falls in this category.
Kids who played three hours or more of video games every day did better on tests of memory and impulse control compared to those who didn’t play games, according to the study. Frequent gamers also showed more activity and higher blood oxygen levels in the frontal regions of the brain, which are associated with more demanding tasks.
“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,” Bader Chaarani, lead author, said in a statement.
Video games and cognitive performance
While many studies have looked at the relationship between video gaming and cognitive performance, the neurobiological mechanisms underlying the links are still not well understood. Only a few neuroimaging studies have looked at this topic, and the sample sizes of the studies have been very small, with fewer than 80 participants.
To tackle this gap, Chaarani and a team of researchers at the University of Vermont have analyzed data from the large and ongoing Adolescent Brain Cognitive Development (ABCD) Study. They looked at cognitive test results, brain images, and survey answers from about 2,000 nine- and ten-year-olds, divided into two groups.
One group was those who reported not playing video games at all, and another one was those who played for three hours or more per day. This threshold was selected as it exceeds the screen time guidelines from the American Academy of Pediatrics, which suggests limiting video gaming time for older children to one or two hours per day.
The researchers evaluated the children’s performance on two specific tasks. The first one involved seeing arrows pointing left or right, with the kids asked to press left or right as fast as possible. In the second one, they were shown people’s faces and were then asked if a subsequent picture shown later matched or not, testing their memory.
After using statistical methods to control variables that could affect the results, such as IQ, the researchers found that video gamers did better on both tasks. They also scanned the kid's brains using functional magnetic resonance imaging and found video gamers’ brains had more activity in regions associated with attention and memory.
The researchers think these patterns could be explained by the tasks related to impulse control and memory carried out while playing video games, which can be cognitively demanding. However, they stressed that further studies will need to be done, as it could be that children that are good at cognitive tasks choose to play video games.
The study was published in the journal JAMA Open Network.