Some parents fear that video games might be detrimental to children’s well-being, but a new study sponsored by the National Institutes of Health finds that gaming may help with both cognition and impulse control.
The study was published Monday in the journal JAMA Network Open.
Other studies have had similar findings, but this research involves the largest group of children to date. It found that kids who played video games for three or more hours a day did better on tasks associated with memory and impulse control than children who didn’t play video games at all. The gamers also had higher levels of activity in parts of the brain associated with attention and working memory.
However, the researchers note that they did not find evidence of a direct causal relationship between video games and cognitive improvements.
The research involved data from nearly 2,000 9- and 10-year-olds from the Adolescent Brain Cognitive Development (ABCD) Study, which is following about 12,000 children for the country’s largest long-term study into brain development and child health.
The new study divided the children into two groups: those who gamed more than three hours a day and those who never gamed. Each group took two tests that measured impulse control and short-term memory while undergoing brain imaging.
Lead study author Bader Chaarani said the researchers controlled for factors like sex, age and socioeconomic status. They found that video gamers not only did better on the tests, they “have more brain activations in regions linked with attention and working memory,” he said.
“That was very nice to see, because it’s a way to explain why they performed better,” said Chaarani, an assistant professor in the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Vermont.
The study didn’t distinguish between the types of video games played, but Chaarani noted that the majority of kids tended to play more fast-paced shooter and action adventure games rather than slower-paced logic games like puzzles.
One takeaway may be that parents should consider opting for video games over television, Chaarani said. “Maybe video gaming is not worse than watching TV.”
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Dr. Jenny Radesky, director of developmental behavioral pediatrics at the University of Michigan Medical School, told CNN in an email that “Parents and teens who see these results should know that most research suggests that some daily video gaming (like 1-2 hours on weekdays) is linked with better mental well-being.”
Radesky, who was not involved in the new research, also noted, “We can’t extrapolate these results to assume, however, that more video gaming will lead to better impulse control or working memory in non-screen contexts, such as classrooms or doing chores at home. Supportive teachers/caregivers and social-emotional skill-building approaches help with those skills in more naturalistic environments.”