Baby Boomer Humor Was Wrong: Video Games Could Make Kids Smarter


“TV will rot your brain!” We’ve all heard that old duck. The idea that screen time makes kids dumber is a staple of the “Father, I can’t click the book” genre of boomer humor. But science is overturning that narrative. A recently published report using data from an ABCD study indicates that screen time isn’t brain rotting in children after all. On the contrary: video games could actually make children more intelligent.

The ABCD study

The Adolescent Brain and Cognitive Development (ABCD) study is a gigantic longitudinal study of the brain health and development of American children.

Participants start at 9-10 years old. Through its wide range of tests and surveys, the project records a wide range of behavioral, biometric and genetic information from participants and their parents. Then, the project scientists follow the participating families until the children are 19-20 years old.

Project data is freely available for other researchers to use in their own studies. Once or twice a year, the ABCD study releases another updated dataset. Now, researchers from Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam and Sweden’s Karolinska Institutet have used that data to find out what video gaming actually does to children’s brains.

Video games can make kids smarter

“For our study,” explain two of the authors of the new study in a joint statement“We were particularly interested in the effect of screen time on intelligence – the ability to learn effectively, think rationally, understand complex ideas and adapt to new situations.”

In particular, their model examined how much time children spent looking at glowing rectangles, and even how they used their screen time. For example, most children in the study used their screen time in three different ways: watching videos (e.g. YouTube), socializing online, or playing video games. It compared gamers and non-gamers on tasks including reading comprehension, memory, visuospatial processing and executive function.

The researchers wanted to cover a wide variety of intelligence subfields. “However, intelligence is highly heritable in the populations we have studied so far,” study author Dr. Bruno Sauce told us on Zoom. Additionally, “genetic and socio-economic factors were our two main confounders.” Thus, to account for variations in these factors, the researchers integrated genetic data and socioeconomic information from the parents of the participants.

After two years, the results showed that screen time had no negative effect on cognitive abilities. On the contrary: children who had remained faithful to the game showed a subtle but persistent improvement in their IQ.

Playing is training

“Our results support the claim that screen time generally does not impair cognitive abilities in children,” mentioned co-author of the study Torkel Klingberg, of the Karolinska Institute in Sweden. Instead, “playing video games can actually help boost intelligence.”

Listen, I could have told you. The ideas for spell slots, mana regen, and cooldowns all contributed to my emotional literacy. Bullet hell games improved my reaction times and allowed me to avoid skill hits. Learn to play differently types of games – League of Legends, Oxygen Not Included, Satisfactory, Foundation – taught me a lot about learning the rules of a given system. And let me tell you something, League made me a lot colder about losing and better at taking criticism.

Image of the study. Original caption: Density diagram of time spent playing (raw values) between boys and girls aged 9-10.

Here’s the thing. The game is the practice. For example: Learning to ride a bike improves your dexterity and timing. The same goes for learning to play Super Mario Bros. You literally improve your DEX stat in real life. This skill then facilitates learning in other situations that require coordination, balance and strength. Likewise, team sports encourage cooperation and build conflict resolution skills. First-person shooters and racing games can even improve a person’s reflexes. The effect is the same for boys and girls. Popular mechanics reports that in tests, “participants playing a first-person shooter were up to 50% better at identifying, locating and tracking objects – skills that are also essential in real-world race driving – than non-players.” -players”.

Games can rewire the brain – for the better

Even Geico agrees that skill development driving games can make teens better drivers. However, not all games have the same beneficial influence. Treat the world like it’s GTA:V, and we’ll become more prone to breaking the law. Driving games are useful when designed to develop driving skills.

This is how video games can make kids smarter in real life. Games use practice to develop skills, and intelligence development requires a wide variety of skills. It’s about learning. “Higher intelligence seems to mean you learn faster,” Dr. Sauce explained. “And higher intelligence in a given subdomain tends to correlate with higher intelligence in other subdomains.”

“The story may be more complicated,” Dr. Sauce told us. “There is still a lot we don’t know about the plasticity of intelligence. But it matches the parallel findings we’ve seen about deliberate practice.

Through practice over time, these skills become embedded in the brain. In addition to improving dexterity, games that develop real skills can also improve your real INT stat. In short, good games can rewire the brain, for the best.

So why did brain training games fail?

Do you remember when brain training games were new? They promised everything from boosting IQ to protecting against Alzheimer’s disease. The been a bit of science to back up the claims. For one thing, there is a correlation between cognitive performance and overall brain health. It’s also true that testing skills as we learn seems to lead to better learning outcomes than just re-reading. Additionally, people with higher IQ scores often score higher on other tests of cognitive skills. But puzzle games have largely failed to deliver on their loftiest promises.

One reason is that there is simply more to brain health than memory recall, executive function, or anything else. Turns out, getting good at sudoku isn’t the same as protecting the brain from age-related diseases. Evidence from other studies suggests that staying active and engaged – using your mind and body – is very important for overall brain health.

Crossword puzzles and brain training games cannot solve genetic diseases. But they train cognitive skills. “It seems there are some benefits of cognitive training,” Dr. Sauce told us, “but those benefits are much narrower in scope than the hype cycle originally suggested. I think that romantic era is over. , and we’re much more skeptical about that — at least, I am.

Instead, roller-skating grannies just might have the right idea. To get sharp and stay healthy, it’s important to have fun and learn new things throughout life. It’s official. Science says go play!

The research is published in Nature Science Reports. We would like to thank Dr. Bruno Sauce, who graciously allowed us to pepper him with questions. Featured image by RebeccaPollard, CC BY SA 2.0.

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