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Weekend Reads | Is Playing Video Games Good for Kids’ Brains?

by Kevin Schofield

Last weekend, I talked about the benefits for Black students of having a Black teacher, benefits that were proven in a long-term study of students in Tennessee. This weekend’s read is a result from another valuable long-term study, this time on children’s brain development. Called the Adolescent Brain Cognitive Development (ABCD) study, it recruited 11,880 children ages 9–10 from 21 sites across the United States and will look at how those kids’ experiences and their bodies’ changing biology affects their brain development over the following several years. Like the study on students, this one is likely to produce dozens, if not hundreds, of research papers with new discoveries.

A group of researchers from the University of Vermont decided to dive into a lively debate: the effect of video gaming on kids’ brains. There is already an enormous pile of research papers on the topic, often with conflicting conclusions, and an even bigger pile of informed and semi-informed opinions, ranging from “video games rot their brains” to “video games improve their cognitive skills, problem-solving skills, and hand-eye coordination.” The potential benefits for playing video games most frequently cited include improved cognitive abilities: tracking multiple objects, switching attention rapidly, peripheral vision, reaction time, logic, problem solving, and even creativity. The potential harms are often related to mental health and include increases in depression, violence, and aggressive behavior. In both cases, the underlying mechanisms through which playing video games would cause these changes are not well understood: Scientists don’t know what actually happens in someone’s brain when they play video games.

The ABCD study collects data on the research subjects through several tools: surveys of basic demographic information; a battery of standard tests used by doctors and psychologists to assess cognitive abilities, physical skills, and behavioral health; blood and other medical tests; and fMRI scans on subjects’ brains, which can identify the areas of a person’s brain that are active during a specific task or activity (and how active those areas are). 

A group of researchers from the University of Vermont recruited about 1,800 participants, all ages 9–10, in the ABCD study group for their research project: about 1,100 children who don’t play video games and 700 who playfor an average of three hours per day. They looked specifically at two cognitive tasks that the ABCD study had collected data for: a “stop signal task” test that looked at how quickly a person will react to a signal to stop doing a particular task; and an “n-back” test of a person’s “working memory” that sees how quickly and accurately a person can repeat back a list of items they are told (obviously, the larger the number of items, the harder the test is). They found that video gamers did better on both tasks, and that there were significantly stronger fMRI signals in video gamers in the parts of their brains associated with complex functions, including attention, cue reactivity, memory, and integration of information — confirming their hypothesis that video games can help train and improve cognitive function. Interestingly, the fMRI scans also showed that video gamers showed less activity in the occipital area of their brain, the part responsible for visual processing, during the “n-back” memory test, which suggests that video gamers may have a more developed ability to shut out visual distractions when they aren’t pertinent to the task at hand.

At the same time, the researchers also pulled the data from the ABCD database on behavioral health tests on their two groups of subjects. And they found that the video gamers among this group of 9- and 10-year-olds showed incrementally higher scores on a number of indicators of behavioral health issues, including attention disorders, depression, aggressive behavior, OCD, and stress. 

“Figure 2. Differences of Behavioral Task Performance and Child Behavior Checklist (CBCL) Measures Between Video Gamers and Non–Video Gamers in the Stop Signal Task and n-Back Task” from “Association of Video Gaming With Cognitive Performance Among Children” by Bader Chaarani, Ph.D.; Joseph Ortigara, MS; DeKang Yuan, MS; Hannah Loso, Ph.D.; Alexandra Potter, Ph.D.; Hugh P. Garavan, Ph.D. Used under the Creative Commons CC-BY license.

There are some important limitations of this study. One big one, as we see with a lot of other research, is that it establishes a correlation between video game playing and some cognitive and behavioral indicators, but it doesn’t establish a cause-and-effect relationship: It doesn’t tell us if video game playing causes these differences or if kids who already have these differences in their cognitive and behavioral abilities are more drawn to video games. It’s also a study in extremes: The participants either didn’t play video games at all or played an extreme amount; it tells us nothing about what’s going on with kids in the middle of the range. Does an hour a week of video game playing have the same cognitive development effect as three hours a day? Is there a threshold where the cognitive and behavioral changes become significant (assuming there is a cause-effect relationship)?

The good news is that it’s leveraging a long-term study, which means the researchers will be able to follow up with the same subjects over the next several years, repeat the tests, and see whether there are further changes. They will also be able to see what happens to the brains and skills of kids who didn’t play video games at age 9 but started later, as well as those who were avid gamers at 9 but then quit.

Right now, though, this study doesn’t give us a clear answer to the burning question: Is playing video games good or bad for kids? It seems it may be both, but there is much we still need to learn.

Association of Video Gaming With Cognitive Performance Among Children

Kevin Schofield is a freelance writer and publishes Seattle Paper Trail. Previously he worked for Microsoft, published Seattle City Council Insight, co-hosted the “Seattle News, Views and Brews” podcast, and raised two daughters as a single dad. He serves on the Board of Directors of Woodland Park Zoo, where he also volunteers.

📸 Featured image by jamesteohart/

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