Three hours of video games each day could give kids a boost

Video gaming may result in better cognitive performance in children, say researchers, but more work is required to sift out benefits from potential harm

Researchers say they have discovered new evidence that kids who play video games for three hours or more per day performed better on tests involving impulse control and working memory compared to children who had never played video games. 

Published in JAMA Network Open, the study analysed data from the ongoing Adolescent Brain Cognitive Development (ABCD) Study, which is supported by the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) and the National Institutes of Health.

“This study adds to our growing understanding of the associations between playing video games and brain development,” says NIDA Director Nora Volkow. “Numerous studies have linked video gaming to behaviour 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.”

Although some studies have investigated the relationship between video gaming and cognitive behaviour, the neurobiological mechanisms underlying the associations are poorly understood, say researchers. Only a handful of neuroimaging studies have addressed this topic, and the sample sizes for those studies have been small, with fewer than 80 participants.

Scientists at the University of Vermont analysed data obtained when children entered the ABCD Study at ages nine and 10 years old. The research team examined survey, cognitive, and brain imaging data from nearly 2,000 participants. 

Researchers separated these children into two groups - those who reported playing no video games at all and those who reported playing video games for three hours per day or more. This threshold was selected as it exceeds the American Academy of Pediatrics screen time guidelines, which recommend that video gaming time be limited to two hours per day for older children. 

Investigators evaluated each group’s performance on two tasks that reflected their ability to control impulsive behaviour and to memorise information, as well as their brain activity while performing the tasks.

Video game kids are more accurate on cognitive tasks

The researchers found children who reported playing video games for three or more hours per day were faster and more accurate on both cognitive tasks than those who never played. They also observed that the differences in cognitive function observed between the two groups were accompanied by differences in brain activity. 

Functional MRI brain imaging analyses found that children who played video games for three or more hours per day showed higher brain activity in regions of the brain associated with attention and memory than those who never played. 

At the same time, those children who played at least three hours of video games per day showed more brain activity in frontal brain regions that are associated with more cognitively demanding tasks and less brain activity in brain regions related to vision.  

Researchers say these patterns may stem from practising tasks related to impulse control and memory while playing video games, and these changes may lead to improved performance on related tasks. 

“While we cannot say whether playing video games regularly caused superior neurocognitive performance, it is an encouraging finding and one that we must continue to investigate in these children as they transition into adolescence and young adulthood,” says Bader Chaarani, Assistant Professor of Psychiatry at the University of Vermont and the lead author on the study. “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.”

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