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Video games linked to better cognitive skills in kids, study shows

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Some parents worry about the negative impact video games could have on their children, but gaming may be associated with improved cognitive abilities, a new study found.  

Kids who play video games for three or more hours per day performed better on impulse control and memory tests than children who don’t play games, according to research published Monday in JAMA Network Open.  

Researchers analyzed brain scans from more than 2,000 school-age participants in the ongoing Adolescent Brain Cognitive Development Study, the largest long-term study of brain development and child health in the country. 

The study has been the largest investigation into the association between video gaming, cognition and brain function, according to Bader Chaarani, assistant professor of psychiatry at the University of Vermont and lead author on the study.

“This study adds to our growing understanding of the associations between playing video games and brain development,” National Institute on Drug Abuse Director Nora Volkow said in a statement. “Numerous studies have linked video gaming to behavior and mental health problems. This study suggests that there may also be cognitive benefits associated with this popular pastime, which are worthy of further investigation.”

How do video games affect children? 

The study adds to a growing body of research suggesting video games may have positive impacts on players.  

Scientists separated children nine and 10 years old into two groups— kids who don’t play video games at all and kids who game for three of more hours per day. The group of young gamers, they found, showed more brain activity in frontal regions associated with more cognitively demanding tasks and less activity in areas related to vision. 

Researchers theorize the changes in brain activity could be due the cognitively demanding nature of video games and an increased proficiency in visual processing as a result of gaming. 

Previous research has linked video games with increases in depression, violence and aggressive behavior, but the latest study found no significant differences in mental and behavioral issues between young gamers and kids who don’t game.

“Excessive use of screen time is obviously not good for mental health and physical health,” Chaarani said. “However, in contradiction with other smaller studies, we are not seeing a direct link between their gaming and mental health or cognition.”

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Parents urged to limit screen time

The authors emphasized that they can’t say whether there is a cause-and-effect relationship between the gamers’ performance and video games. Children who did well on the cognitive test, they said, may be the ones who choose to play video games in the first place.  

They also stressed that the findings do not mean children should spend an unlimited amount of screen time. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends limits of one to two hours of video games per day.  

The study didn’t include the genre of video games played in the analyses. Research, however, suggests that different games could have a different impacts on the brain, Chaarani said.

“That’s something we couldn’t look at in our study because we don’t have this information yet, but that’s something we’re gonna be studying,” Chaarani said.

The Adolescent Brain Cognitive Development Study, funded by the National Institutes of Health, tracks 12,000 children who entered the study when they were nine and 10 years old through adolescence into young adulthood. 

“We’re planning to keep tracking these video gamers— their neurodevelopment, their behavior, their mental health,” Chaarani said. 

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