While life is more normal now than it was two years ago, pandemic lockdowns and school building closures that once kept young people inside and online have likely altered behavior for the foreseeable future. For instance, results of a nationwide survey conducted by an “entertainment software” company in 2022 revealed that 71 percent of two- to seventeen-year-olds in the United States were identified as video game players by their parents. Many of us are at least vaguely aware of prior studies finding that playing violent video games is linked to increases in overt aggressive behavior over time. But a recent study from the Journal of the American Medical Association looks at, shall we say, less hostile outcomes and finds better news.
Six scholars from the University of Vermont examine the link between video games and cognitive performance in children—specifically involving working memory and motor responses. Their theory: Video gaming shares some similarities with common cognitive tasks like tracking multiple objects, rapid changes in attention, and peripheral vision that may enhance reaction time, problem solving, and logic.
Data from over 2,200 nine- and ten-year-olds were collected from the Adolescent Brain Cognitive Development Study (ABCD), a comprehensive longitudinal project that kicked off in 2018 and will track the brain development of its participants into adulthood. The study uses brain imaging from functional MRI data while students perform tasks. A randomized probability sample was recruited from the ABCD’s first release in 2019 across twenty-one sites that included district, charter, and private elementary schools that mirrored the demographic variation of the U.S. elementary population (inquiring minds can find more here).
The researchers divided the sample into two groups. First were the gamers—those young people who self-reported playing video games three hours per day or twenty-one hours per week or more, which is an amount that exceeds the American Academy of Pediatrics’s recommended maximum of one to two hours per day. The second group comprised non-gamers, who reported zero hours of gaming per week. Analysts had access to numerous control variables, demographics included, as well as behavioral and psychiatric variables such as age-corrected IQ scores; child’s body mass index (BMI); and measures of anxiety, depression, aggression, attention deficit disorder (ADD), oppositional defiance disorder, and more. The study tasks required that the young participants look at many faces in a short time span and then respond whether they had already seen that face, while researchers recorded how fast they responded “yes” or “no.” Another task resembled a “Simon Says” activity, in which children have to repeatedly press a “stop” or “go” button based on repetitive and sometimes differing directions.
Gamers and non-gamers did not differ on age, BMI, or IQ, and their mental and behavioral scores were not significantly different. However, gamers were more likely to be male and have less combined parental income.
As for the empirical results: Overall, gamers had better memory and better control over their motor skills than non-gamers. Specifically, gamers took less time to inhibit their motor response or reaction time in the tasks (nine milliseconds versus twelve milliseconds) and were less susceptible to distractions, suggesting that “gamers have greater capacity to suppress or disregard irrelevant stimuli.” Moreover, data from the MRI scans showed differences in brain activity patterns when performing the tasks. In a nutshell, gamers had more activity in the brain regions that involve attention, memory, and cue reactivity than did their non-gamer peers. Digging even more deeply, during tasks involving working memory, the scans showed that gamers exhibited less blood-oxygenation-level dependent (BOLD) signals, which indicates that their responses came from specific areas of the brain—and suggests that the children were actively engaged with the video game content, as opposed to passively watching it.
Still, the results need to be taken with the proverbial salt grain. The findings are not causal and are based on a snapshot of information from a brand-new dataset. Additionally, we don’t know how the non-gamers spend their time, which matters in a comparison. (They could be reading historical fiction or scrolling TikTok.) And although the results appear positive for gamers, spending three hours per day or twenty-one hours per week (or more) playing video games is a lot of time. That means less time spent on schoolwork, physical exercise, time with the family, and so on. In other words, what elicits one person’s delight may elicit another’s dismay.
SOURCE: Bader Chaarani, Ph.D., et al., “Association of Video Gaming With Cognitive Performance Among Children,” Journal of the American Medical Association (October 2022).