Study finds that playing videogames may be more cognitively beneficial for children than other forms of screentime (social media, watching videos/ TV)

Many par­ents feel guilty when their chil­dren play video games for hours on end. Some even wor­ry it could make their chil­dren less clever. And, indeed, that’s a top­ic sci­en­tists have clashed over for years.

In our new study, we inves­ti­gat­ed how video games affect the minds of chil­dren, inter­view­ing and test­ing more than 5,000 chil­dren aged ten to 12. And the results, pub­lished in Sci­en­tif­ic Reports, will be sur­pris­ing to some.

Chil­dren were asked how many hours a day they spent on social media, watch­ing videos or TV, and play­ing video games. The answer was: a lot of hours. On aver­age, chil­dren spent two and a half hours a day watch­ing online videos or TV pro­grammes, half an hour social­is­ing online, and one hour play­ing video games.

In total, that’s four hours a day for the aver­age child and six hours for the top 25% – a large por­tion of a child’s free time. And oth­er reports found that this has increased dra­mat­i­cal­ly over the decades. Screens were around in pre­vi­ous gen­er­a­tions, but now they tru­ly define childhood.

Is that a bad thing? Well, it’s com­pli­cat­ed. There could be both ben­e­fits and draw­backs for the devel­op­ing minds of chil­dren. And these might depend on the out­come you are look­ing at. For our study, we were specif­i­cal­ly inter­est­ed in the effect of screen time on intel­li­gence – the abil­i­ty to learn effec­tive­ly, think ratio­nal­ly, under­stand com­plex ideas, and adapt to new situations.

Intel­li­gence is an impor­tant trait in our lives and high­ly pre­dic­tive of a child’s future income, hap­pi­ness and longevi­ty. In research, it’s often mea­sured as per­for­mance on a wide range of cog­ni­tive tests. For our study, we cre­at­ed an intel­li­gence index from five tasks: two on read­ing com­pre­hen­sion and vocab­u­lary, one on atten­tion and exec­u­tive func­tion (which includes work­ing mem­o­ry, flex­i­ble think­ing and self-con­trol), one assess­ing visu­al-spa­tial pro­cess­ing (such as rotat­ing objects in your mind), and one on learn­ing abil­i­ty over mul­ti­ple trials.

This is not the first time some­one has stud­ied the effect of screens on intel­li­gence, but research, so far, has pro­duced mixed results. So, what’s spe­cial this time? The nov­el­ty of our study is that we took genes and socioe­co­nom­ic back­grounds into account. Only a few stud­ies so far have con­sid­ered socioe­co­nom­ic sta­tus (house­hold income, parental edu­ca­tion and neigh­bour­hood qual­i­ty), and no study had account­ed for genet­ic effects.

Genes mat­ter because intel­li­gence is high­ly her­i­ta­ble. If unac­count­ed for, these fac­tors could mask the true effect of screen time on children’s intel­li­gence. For exam­ple, chil­dren born with cer­tain genes might be more prone to watch TV and, inde­pen­dent­ly, have learn­ing issues. The lot­tery of genet­ics is a major con­founder in any psy­cho­log­i­cal process, but until recent­ly this has been hard to account for in sci­en­tif­ic stud­ies due to the heavy costs of genome analy­sis and tech­no­log­i­cal limitations.

The data we used for our study is part of a mas­sive data col­lec­tion effort in the US to bet­ter under­stand child­hood devel­op­ment: the Ado­les­cent Brain and Cog­ni­tive Devel­op­ment project. Our sam­ple was rep­re­sen­ta­tive of the US in terms of sex, race, eth­nic­i­ty and socioe­co­nom­ic status.

The results:

We found that when we first asked the child at age ten how much they played, both watch­ing videos and social­is­ing online were linked to below-aver­age intel­li­gence. Mean­while, gam­ing wasn’t linked with intel­li­gence at all. These results of screen time are most­ly in line with pre­vi­ous research. But when we fol­lowed up at a lat­er date, we found that gam­ing had a pos­i­tive and mean­ing­ful effect on intelligence.

While chil­dren who played more video games at ten years were on aver­age no more intel­li­gent than chil­dren who didn’t game, they showed the most gains in intel­li­gence after two years, in both boys and girls. For exam­ple, a child who was in the top 17% in terms of hours spent gam­ing increased their IQ about 2.5 points more than the aver­age child over two years.

This is evi­dence of a ben­e­fi­cial, causal effect of video games on intel­li­gence. This result fits with pre­vi­ous, small­er stud­ies, where par­tic­i­pants are ran­dom­ly assigned to video-game play­ing or a con­trol group. Our find­ing is also in line with par­al­lel lines of stud­ies sug­gest­ing that cog­ni­tive abil­i­ties aren’t fixed, but can be trained – includ­ing stud­ies with cog­ni­tive train­ing inter­ven­tion apps.

What about the oth­er two types of screen activ­i­ties? Social media did not effect the change in intel­li­gence after two years. The many hours of insta­gram­ming and mes­sag­ing did not boost children’s intel­li­gence, but it was not detri­men­tal either. Final­ly, watch­ing TV and online videos showed a pos­i­tive effect in one of the analy­ses, but no effect when parental edu­ca­tion was tak­en into account (as opposed to the broad­er fac­tor of “socioe­co­nom­ic sta­tus”). So this find­ing should be tak­en with a grain of salt. There is some empir­i­cal sup­port that high-qual­i­ty TV/video con­tent, such as the pro­gramme Sesame Street, has a pos­i­tive effect on children’s school per­for­mance and cog­ni­tive abil­i­ties. But those results are rare.

When think­ing about the impli­ca­tions of these find­ings, it is impor­tant to keep in mind that there are many oth­er psy­cho­log­i­cal aspects that we didn’t look at, such as men­tal health, sleep qual­i­ty and phys­i­cal exer­cise. Our results should not be tak­en as a blan­ket rec­om­men­da­tion for all par­ents to allow lim­it­less gam­ing. But for those par­ents both­ered by their chil­dren play­ing video games, you can now feel bet­ter know­ing that it’s prob­a­bly mak­ing them a tad smarter.

Torkel Kling­berg is a Pro­fes­sor of Cog­ni­tive Neu­ro­science at Karolin­s­ka Insti­tutet and the chief sci­en­tif­ic offi­cer at Cogmed. Bruno Sauce is an Assis­tant Pro­fes­sor of Bio­log­i­cal Psy­chol­o­gy at Vri­je Uni­ver­siteit Ams­ter­dam. This arti­cle was orig­i­nal­ly pub­lished on The Con­ver­sa­tion.

The Study:

The impact of dig­i­tal media on children’s intel­li­gence while con­trol­ling for genet­ic dif­fer­ences in cog­ni­tion and socioe­co­nom­ic back­ground (Sci­en­tif­ic Reports). From the Abstract:

  • Dig­i­tal media defines mod­ern child­hood, but its cog­ni­tive effects are unclear and hot­ly debat­ed. We believe that stud­ies with genet­ic data could clar­i­fy causal claims and cor­rect for the typ­i­cal­ly unac­count­ed role of genet­ic pre­dis­po­si­tions. Here, we esti­mat­ed the impact of dif­fer­ent types of screen time (watch­ing, social­iz­ing, or gam­ing) on children’s intel­li­gence while con­trol­ling for the con­found­ing effects of genet­ic dif­fer­ences in cog­ni­tion and socioe­co­nom­ic sta­tus … Broad­ly, our results are in line with research on the mal­leabil­i­ty of cog­ni­tive abil­i­ties from envi­ron­men­tal fac­tors, such as cog­ni­tive train­ing and the Fly­nn effect.

The Study in Context:

About SharpBrains

SHARPBRAINS is an independent think-tank and consulting firm providing services at the frontier of applied neuroscience, health, leadership and innovation.
SHARPBRAINS es un think-tank y consultoría independiente proporcionando servicios para la neurociencia aplicada, salud, liderazgo e innovación.

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