Video games may be associated with better cognitive performance in children

News release

Monday, October 24, 2022

Further research is needed to analyze the potential benefits and harms of video games on the developing brain.

A study of nearly 2,000 children found that those who reported playing video games for three hours a day or more performed better on tests of cognitive skills including impulse control and working memory than children , who have never played video games. Published today in JAMA Network Openthis study analyzed data from the ongoing Study of Adolescent Brain Cognitive Development (ABCD), which is supported by the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) and other entities of the National Institutes of Health.

“This study contributes to our growing understanding of the links between playing video games and brain development,” said NIDA Director Nora Volkow, MD. “Numerous studies have linked video games to behavior and mental health problems. This study suggests that there may also be cognitive benefits associated with this popular pastime that are worthy of further investigation.

Although a number of studies have examined the relationship between video games and cognitive behavior, the neurobiological mechanisms underlying the associations are not well understood. Only a few neuroimaging studies have addressed this topic, and the sample sizes for these studies have been small, with fewer than 80 participants.

To address this research gap, researchers at the University of Vermont, Burlington, analyzed data obtained when children entered the ABCD study at ages 9 and 10. The research team examined survey data, cognitive data and brain imaging from nearly 2,000 participants from the larger study cohort. They divided these children into two groups, those who reported playing no video games at all and those who reported playing video games three hours a day or more. This threshold was chosen because it exceeds the American Academy of Pediatrics screen time guidelines, which recommend that video game time be limited to one to two hours per day for older children. For each group, the researchers assessed the children’s performance on two tasks that measured their ability to control impulsive behavior and remember information, as well as the children’s brain activity while performing the tasks.

The researchers found that children who reported playing video games three or more hours a day were faster and more accurate on both cognitive tasks than those who never played. They also observed that the differences in cognitive function observed between the two groups were accompanied by differences in brain activity. Functional MRI analyzes of the brain showed that children who played video games three or more hours a day showed higher brain activity in areas of the brain associated with attention and memory than those who never played. At the same time, those children who played at least three hours of video games per day showed more brain activity in frontal brain areas associated with more cognitively demanding tasks and less brain activity in brain areas associated with sight.

The researchers believe that these patterns may arise from practicing tasks related to impulse control and memory while playing video games, which can be cognitively demanding, and that these changes may lead to improved performance on related tasks. Additionally, the relatively low activity in visual areas among children who reported playing video games may reflect that this area of ​​the brain may become more efficient at visual processing as a result of repeated practice through video games.

While previous studies have reported links between video games and increases in depression, violence, and aggressive behavior, this study did not find that to be the case. Although children who reported playing video games for three or more hours per day tended to report higher mental and behavioral problems than children who did not play video games, the researchers found that this relationship was not statistically significant, meaning the authors cannot rule out whether this trend reflects a true association or chance. They note that this will be an important measure to continue to track and understand as children grow older.

The researchers also stress that this cross-sectional study does not allow for cause-and-effect analyses, and that it may be that children who are good at these types of cognitive tasks may choose to play video games. The authors also emphasize that their findings do not mean that children should spend unlimited time on their computers, cell phones, or televisions, and that the results likely depend largely on the specific activities in which children participate. For example, they suggest that the specific genre of video games, such as action-adventure, puzzle solving, sports, or shooting games, may have different effects on neurocognitive development, and this level of specificity to the type of video game played was not assessed by the study.

“Although we cannot say whether regular video game playing led to superior neurocognitive performance, this is an encouraging finding, and we should continue to study these children as they transition into adolescence and young adulthood,” said Bader Chaarani, Ph .D. , assistant professor of psychiatry at the University of Vermont and lead author of the study. “Many parents today are concerned about the effects of video games on their children’s health and development, and as these games continue to proliferate among young people, it is critical that we better understand both the positive and negative effects they can have they have games like that.’

Through the ABCD study, researchers will be able to conduct similar analyzes for the same children over time into early adulthood to see if changes in video game behavior are associated with changes in cognitive skills, brain activity, behavior and mental health. The long-term study design and comprehensive data set will also allow them to better account for a variety of other factors in children’s families and environments that may influence their cognitive and behavioral development, such as exercise, sleep quality and other influences.

The ABCD study, the largest of its kind in the United States, followed nearly 12,000 youth as they grew into young adults. The researchers regularly measured the brain structure and activity of the participants using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and collected psychological, environmental and cognitive information as well as biological samples. The purpose of the research is to understand the factors that influence brain, cognitive and social-emotional development, to inform the development of interventions to improve the young person’s life trajectory.

Adolescent Brain Cognitive Development Study and ABCD Study are registered service marks and trademarks of the US Department of Health and Human Services, respectively

About the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA): NIDA is a component of the National Institutes of Health, US Department of Health and Human Services. NIDA supports most of the world’s research on the health aspects of drug use and addiction. The Institute runs a wide variety of programs to inform policy, improve practice, and advance the science of addiction. For more information about NIDA and its programs, visit www.nida.nih.gov.

For the National Institutes of Health (NIH):NIH, the national agency for medical research, includes 27 institutes and centers and is part of the US Department of Health and Human Services. NIH is the primary federal agency conducting and supporting basic, clinical, and translational medical research and investigates the causes, treatments, and cures for both common and rare diseases. For more information about NIH and its programs, visit www.nih.gov.

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