Gaming Might Not Be Bad for Kids, But Not Everyone Thinks They Help

Recent study shows benefits

  • A new study finds brain-boosting benefits for kids who play video games. 
  • Children who played video games performed better on cognitive skill tests involving impulse control and working memory.
  • Some experts say more studies are needed before drawing any conclusions that video games are good for kids.
Mature man relaxing at home and playing video games with boy, fun, bonding, modern fatherhood

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Don't feel bad the next time your kids play video games, many experts say, but moderation is important and more studies on the subject are needed.

A recent study found that children who reported playing video games for three hours per day or more performed better on certain cognitive skill tests. A growing body of evidence shows that video games aren't harmful to kids, but not everyone agrees that video games boost brain performance. 

"This study is interesting, but has so many holes that it won't hold water," Connie Bartlett, a pediatrician with Providence St. Joseph Hospital in Orange County, Calif., told Lifewire in an email interview. "It's misleading and short-sighted. The study completely ignored the behavior of children ages 9-10 in terms of gullibility, lack of self-control, impulsiveness, and poor executive functioning. The study [also] did not disclose the type of video games that were studied." 

Video Games for Good

The study of nearly 2,000 children found that gamers had better scores on tests involving impulse control and working memory than children who had never played video games.

"This study adds to our growing understanding of the associations between playing video games and brain development," Nora Volkow, M.D., the director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse, said in a news release.

But Barlett said the study is still missing key details that could inform parents and researchers on how video games affect kids. "More studies are needed for sure before this recommendation is ready for prime time," she added.

Brain imaging analyzed in the study found that children who played video games for a few hours a day showed higher brain activity in regions of the brain associated with attention and memory than those who never played. Those children also showed more brain activity in frontal brain regions associated with more cognitively demanding tasks but less brain activity in brain regions related to vision. The researchers said in their paper these patterns may result from practicing tasks related to impulse control and memory while playing video games. 

"The study is accurate in showing some benefits of children playing video games," Hallie Zwibel, a physician and director of the Center for Esports Medicine at New York Institute of Technology, who was not involved in the study, told Lifewire via email. "This adds to the evidence from other studies showing that video game use is linked with improvements in attention and hand-eye coordination."

Games Are No Panacea

However, even the most enthusiastic endorsers of the video game study said they still had doubts about whether games are always a good idea for kids. Charles Palmer, who leads the Interactive Media Programs at Harrisburg University of Science and Technology, told Lifewire via email that some kids benefit from video games, "but not all." He noted that playing games could improve a child's mood, promote relaxation, and reduce anxiety. And, he said, for many children, video games are an outlet for socialization. 

"Today, and especially during the pandemic, kids are building friends beyond their geographic boundaries," he added.

Teenager gaming online in his bedroom

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Video games "encourage collaboration, communication, and leadership," Michael Cassens, a professor of gaming and interactive media at the University of Montana, said to Lifewire via email. But, he added, "just like any activity, children should play video games in moderation. If played too long, physical issues such as eye strain, poor posture, and even overuse injuries could result."

Jason Kahn, the chief scientific officer of Mightier, a company that develops therapeutic video games, noted in an email that because the study is observational, we don't understand causation. "It could be that kids with executive functioning skills are drawn to video game play, not that the video game play is causing the development of these skills," he said. "While we have long seen benefits to play, we can't rely on this study alone to ask kids to play a daily dose of Tetris."

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