WASHINGTON — Parents often worry about the harmful effects of video games on their children, from mental and social health issues to lack of exercise.
But a new large US study published Monday in JAMA Network Open indicates that there may also be cognitive benefits associated with this popular pastime.
Lead author Bader Chaarani, an assistant professor of psychiatry at the University of Vermont, told AFP he was naturally drawn to the topic as an avid gamer himself with expertise in neuroimaging.
Previous research had focused on adverse effects, linking gambling to depression and increased aggression.
These studies, however, were limited by their relatively small number of participants, especially those involving brain imaging, Charaani said.
For the new research, Chaarani and her colleagues analyzed data from the large ongoing study of adolescent brain cognitive development (ABCD), funded by the National Institutes of Health.
They looked at survey responses, cognitive test scores and brain images of about 2,000 nine- and ten-year-old children, who were separated into two groups: those who had never played games and those who gambled for three or more hours a day.
This threshold was chosen because it exceeds the American Academy of Pediatrics screen time guidelines of one or two hours of video games for older children.
Impulses and memory
Each group was assessed in two tasks.
The first involved seeing arrows pointing left or right, with kids being told to tap left or right as fast as they could.
They were also told not to press anything if they saw a “stop” signal, to measure how well they could control their impulses.
In the second task, they were shown people’s faces and then asked whether or not a subsequent image shown later matched, in a test of their working memory.
After using statistical methods to control for variables that could skew the results, such as parental income, IQ, and mental health symptoms, the team found that video gamers performed better on both tasks.
As they performed the tasks, the children’s brains were scanned using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). The brains of video game players showed more activity in regions associated with attention and memory.
“The findings raise the intriguing possibility that video gaming may provide a cognitive training experience with measurable neurocognitive effects,” the authors conclude in their paper.
At this time, it’s not possible to know whether better cognitive performance leads to more games or is the result, Chaarani said.
The team hopes to get a clearer answer as the study continues and they examine the same children again at older ages.
This will also help rule out other potential factors at play such as the children’s home environment, exercise, and sleep quality.
Future studies could also benefit from knowing what genres of games children played – although at age 10 children tend to prefer action games like Fortnite or Assassin’s Creed.
“Of course, excessive use of screen time is bad for mental health and physical activity in general,” Chaarani said.
But he said the results showed video games might be a better use of screen time than watching videos on YouTube, which has no discernible cognitive effect. — France Media Agency