Study: Video Games Could Improve Kids' Brains

Nowadays, technology is an inseparable part of our lives. We use it for socializing, entertainment, work, studying and tracking health indicators, activity, and sleep. As a result, it is a part of nearly every household and every domain of day-to-day life. While the older generations still remember landline phones and limited internet access, today, cell phones and wireless connections have become the standard.

Key takeaways:
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    Children who play video games more than 21 hours a week show increased cognitive performance.
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    Brain imaging in children who game yields mixed results, with some indication of an increased risk of mental health problems.
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    Gaming is not detrimental to children, but moderation is key.

Younger generations are growing up with an increasing amount of screen time, whether that would be TV, computer, or cell phone. Though it may be a pleasurable activity that keeps children occupied and happy, medical professionals debate the effects on child development, well-being, and cognitive skills.

Managing a child’s screen time

Most people have probably heard negative comments about overusing technology. For example, the American Academy of Pediatrics suggests that parents or caregivers limit screen time for children to between one and two hours per day. However, combining computer, cell phone, and TV usage seems unrealistically low and probably, does not represent an average child’s actual usage. Moreover, a 2022 report shows that more than two-thirds of children between 2 and 17 regularly play video games, which adds even more screen time.

Earlier this fall, scientist Bader Chaarani and colleagues set out to investigate how video gaming affects a child’s cognitive skills. The authors compared two groups of children, those who do not play video games and those who played video games for more than 3 hours a day, which is more than the recommended amount of screen time by the American Academy of Pediatrics.

The study used a brain imaging technique called functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), which measures brain activity in particular regions. The children performed two cognitive tasks while their brain activity was recorded.

Stop signal task — As its name suggests, this task assesses how individuals can inhibit responses. They are required to react as quickly as possible either to “respond”, for example clicking a button or “inhibit their response” by not clicking a button.

N-back task — This type of task is routinely used for cognitive assessment. It evaluates the working memory. For example, subjects are shown three cards with letters. The previous card disappears before a new card appears. After seeing all the cards, testers ask the subjects to recall the letters from the first card.

How screen time affects the brain

The study’s authors found that the group of children who played video games more than 21 hours a week performed better compared to children who did not play video games — in both described tasks.

There was more activity in the brain’s precuneus, which involves memory and recall, during the stop-signal task in gaming children. Moreover, the response times and efficiency were better in the gaming group, which may indicate that children who play video games can more effectively disregard irrelevant information and focus better.

In addition, the video gaming group outperformed the non-gaming group in working memory tasks. The “gamers” responded more quickly and more accurately identified the items they were asked to remember. However, in this task, even though the overall performance was better in the gaming group, there appeared to be less brain activity. The authors speculate that this might indicate an increased risk for mental health problems. However, at the time of the study, there were no differences between the gaming and non-gaming children's mental health scores.

Finally, the authors examined whether the differences in brain activity and task performance between groups were specific to video gaming. They have found that only active video gaming compared to passive video watching was indicative of better cognitive performance as indicated by stop signal task and working memory task.

Should I encourage or limit my child’s screen time?

While this study does not leave us with a straight answer, parents should limit a child’s screen time.

One of the pitfalls of the research is that there was no game differentiation. Nowadays, a variety of computer games are available — strategy, shooters, puzzle solving, action-adventure, sports, and many more. This means that not all games will result in better cognitive performance, and not all of them could have detrimental effects. Nonetheless, too much screen time, especially blue light, can negatively affect sleep. Furthermore, children don’t move around enough when gaming — physical activity is important for young, developing children. In addition, some games have a social aspect, for example, playing online with friends. However, offline or sole-player games limit social interaction and, thus, can affect a child’s social skill development.

The authors stress that even though the results are promising — indicating that video gaming has the potential for cognitive training, more research is needed before the evidence is conclusive. As for now, video gaming should be done in moderation and, more importantly, with a healthy combination of other activities that involve other domains of life and development, such as social activities, board games, physical exercise, and education.

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