Playing Video Games May Have Cognitive Benefits for Pre-Teens

Kids who play video games three hours or more a day performed better in cognitive skills tests involving impulse control and working memory than kids who never play video games, according to research released Monday.

The study of nearly 2,000 children was conducted by researchers at the University of Vermont in Burlington and sponsored by the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) and other entities of the National Institutes of Health and is part of an ongoing study on adolescent cognizant development.

According to the NIDA, a number of studies have investigated the relationship between video gaming and cognitive behavior. Still, only a handful of neuroimaging studies have addressed the topic, and the sample sizes in those studies were small, with fewer than 80 participants.

The Vermont researchers examined cognitive and brain-imaging data of the nine- and 10-year-olds participating in the larger adolescent cognizant development study. Subjects of the study were divided into two groups — those who never played video games and those who played three hours or more a day.

Researchers assessed each group on two tasks that evaluated their ability to control impulsive behavior and to memorize information, as well as their brain activity while performing the tasks. The scientists found that the video gamers were faster and more accurate at the tasks than the non-players.

They also discovered higher brain activity in regions of the brain associated with attention and memory and in frontal brain regions associated with more cognitively demanding tasks.

Less brain activity was found in brain regions related to vision. The researchers think that low activity in visual areas may be because the brain becomes more efficient at visual processing due to repeated game practice.

Calming Word to Parents

“There’s a lot of published work saying that video games are associated with negative mental health and cognitive outcomes, which worries parents about their kids playing video games,” observed University of Vermont Assistant Professor Bader Chaarani, one of the authors of the study.

“We are looking at heavy video game players — three or more hours a day — and we’re not seeing any association with negative outcomes,” he told TechNewsWorld. “So the message to parents is worry less, and there could actually be benefits from video gaming.”

Although the study did not find the associations between video gaming and increased depression, violence, and aggressive behavior found in other studies, it did find that game players tended to report higher mental health and behavioral issues than non-players.

However, the researchers noted that finding was not statistically significant, meaning they couldn’t tell if the issues were related to game playing or just chance.

“I don’t think there’s any question that video gaming can influence the cognitive skills of some children, as it may help them become more responsive and attentive to certain topics,” observed Mark N. Vena, president and principal analyst at SmartTech Research in San Jose, Calif.

“But there’s also the possibility that some types of violent video game content may improve cognitive skills at the expense of desensitization, which would be bad for children and society,” he told TechNewsWorld.

“It’s not a simple topic,” added Michael Goodman, director for TV and digital media strategies at Strategy Analytics, an international research, advisory and analytics firm.

“You can’t just paint the entire video game industry with one broad brush,” he told TechNewsWorld. “There are aspects of video games that are positive and negative for kids. A game could improve your cognitive skills while at the same time desensitizing you to violence.”

Balance Imperative

“I think that the results from this study are very promising and give us concrete data that video game play can have positive and meaningful effects on the cognitive abilities and performance of children,” said Dr. Lynn E. Fiellin, a professor at the Yale University School of Medicine.

“I believe parents would see these as important and valuable findings given how many children play video games,” she told TechNewsWorld. Fiellin is also director of the play2PREVENT lab at Yale, which works on developing video games that target critical health outcomes in teens.

“We believe and have demonstrated that well-developed and evidence-based video games can positively impact children and teens through cognitive training,” she noted. “This recent study provides complementary data to support what we have seen.”

As beneficial as video games can be, those benefits can be muted by too much of a good thing. “I think spending too much time at the exclusion of other activities important to childhood and adolescence are some of the negatives associated with kids playing video games,” Fiellin acknowledged.

“Balance is key,” she continued. “But I think we have shown, and this recent study has further shown, the many positive features and benefits of video game play.”

NIDA Director Dr. Nora Volkow concurred that balance is important.

“Video gaming can lead young people to neglect other activities like doing homework, going to sleep, and having social interactions, which are all extraordinarily important for their brain development,” she told TechNewsWorld.

“Like anything else, it’s a question of balance,” she agreed. “The lesson we have to learn is how can we optimize video gaming technology to develop tools that can be applied to maximize the improvement of different cognitive skills of anyone.”

More Granularity Needed

One of the study’s drawbacks is the researchers didn’t have any data on the genre of games being played by the video players.

“We need to study this in much greater detail,” Volkow said. “There is a wide variety of video games. In this particular study, they do not address those differences.”

“You might have a game that is maximizing shooting people. That will improve your reaction time. It will make you very fast,” she explained. “Or you might have a video game where you might need a route to escape. That’s going to maximize your memory.”

“We don’t have any granularity in this study as it relates to whether there were differences related to the functions in the types of video games that these children were using,” she noted.

There will be time to gather that information since the larger cognitive study will follow participants into their twenties.

“We’re planning to follow them in the upcoming years, and we’ll have more information on the games that they’re playing,” Chaarani said. “For now, we’re seeing this improvement even without considering what genre of game they are playing.”

“It will be interesting to find out if we still see these advantages as these kids grow older,” Volkow added.

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