Research shows that video games can improve children’s brains

Video games have gained notoriety over the years for their alleged impact on children, from mental health and social problems to exercise loss. However, a large new US study published in JAMA Network Open suggests there may also be cognitive benefits associated with popular entertainment.

Lead author Bader Al-Shaarani, an associate professor of psychiatry at the University of Vermont, told AFP he was naturally drawn to the topic as a passionate player with a background in neuroimaging.

Previous research has focused on harmful effects and linked gaming to depression and increased aggression.

Sharani said these studies were limited by the relatively small number of participants, particularly those involving brain imaging.

For the new research, Charani and colleagues analyzed data from the large, ongoing Adolescent Brain Cognitive Development (ABCD) study, which is funded by the National Institutes of Health.

They studied survey responses, cognitive test results and brain imaging from nearly 2,000 children ages 9 to 10, separated into two groups: those who had never played a game and those who played three or more hours a day.

This threshold was chosen because it exceeds the American Academy of Pediatrics screen time guidelines for one to two hours of video games for older children.

Impulses and memory

Each group was evaluated on two tasks.

The first is seeing arrows pointing left or right, and kids are asked to press left or right as fast as they can.

They were also asked not to press anything if they saw a “stop” sign, to measure how well they could control their impulses.

In the second task, they were shown people’s faces and then asked if the secondary image shown later matched, in a test of their working memory.

After using statistical methods to control for variables that could skew the results, such as parental income, IQ, and mental health symptoms, the team found that video game players performed better on both tasks.

While performing the tasks, the children’s brains were scanned using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). The brains of the video players showed more activity in areas associated with attention and memory.

In their article, the authors conclude: “The results raise the intriguing possibility that video games may provide a cognitive training experience with measurable neurocognitive effects.”

At the moment, it’s not possible to know if better cognitive performance is driving more games or if it’s the result, Shaarani said.

The team hopes to get a clearer answer as the study continues and they re-observe the same children at older ages.

This will also help rule out other possible factors at play, such as the children’s home environment, exercise, and sleep quality.

Future studies could also benefit from knowing what kinds of games children play, although 10-year-olds tend to prefer action games like Fortnite or Assassin’s Creed.

“Of course, excessive use of screen time is detrimental to mental health and physical activity in general,” Charani said.

But he said the results showed that video games may be a better use of screen time than watching YouTube videos, which don’t have noticeable cognitive effects.