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Are Video Games Helpful For Your Child's Brain? A New Study Says Yes

Boy playing video games

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Key Takeaways

  • A new study found that playing video games may be good for a child's cognitive development.
  • Children who played video games performed better on working memory and impulse control tests.
  • We still need more research on the positive and negative effects of video games to say how much gaming is okay for kids.

Video gaming has long gotten a bad rap—but a new study shows it may actually be good for cognitive development in children.

Most of the research on video games thus far has focused on their negative effects. For example, video games have been linked to anti-social and aggressive behavior. Other studies have found that there is no connection between the two. But thus far, there has not been much research on the connection between video games and cognitive performance.

A study from the National Institute of Drug Abuse (NIDA) shows that playing video games might boost kids' working memory and impulse control—though that doesn't mean they have a green light to play as much as they want!

How Does Video Gaming Affect a Child's Brain?

The researchers asked about 2,000 9-and 10-year-olds about their screen time habits and then selected two groups of children. One group played no video games at all while the other group played for roughly three hours each day.

Interestingly, 63% of the participants in the study on cognitive development were girls. Though it was once considered a stereotypical male activity, it seems that gaming is now enjoyed by kids of all genders.

Both groups were given cognitive tasks that measured working memory and self-inhibition (aka impulse control). The kids who played video games performed better on the tests than their peers who did not.

"This finding supports previous research that video gaming is associated with enhanced attention, working memory, creativity, problem-solving, and even increased IQ," says Cara Goodwin, PhD, a licensed clinical psychologist and the author of children's book, "What to Do When You Feel Like Hitting."

Video Gaming on the Rise

More children than ever before are playing video games. Survey data found that 71% percent of children ages 2 to 17 play video games. With gaming on the rise, it's important to understand how kids' brains are affected.

How Much Gaming Is Too Much?

When the researchers formed the two groups of children for the study, they purposely chose a three-hour threshold for the video-gaming group. That's because it exceeds the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommended limit of one to two hours of gaming per day for this age group.

"Most kids in the U.S. exceed the recommended screen time limits," says Pierrette Mimi Poinsett, MD, a pediatrician and medical consultant at Mom Loves Best. This becomes harmful if screen time begins to interfere with other healthy habits. In fact, three or more hours of screen time may interfere with sleep, physical activity, or social-emotional development, according to Dr. Goodwin.

It's important to note that this study did not intend to make a statement about whether the guidelines should be revised. "The study did not differentiate between the video games that children were playing with, nor did it assess if video gaming interfered with other social, educational, or physical activities," notes Nora Volkow, MD, a psychiatrist and the director of the (NIDA), which supported the research for the study.

Pierrette Mimi Poinsett, MD

Games are not all bad, but it's important to limit your child's overall screen time and encourage healthy habits.

More Data Needed on Gaming

It's refreshing to hear a study that found something positive about kids' gaming, but the researchers note that there were limitations to their study. Additional research is needed to know exactly how much gaming is okay.

"Numerous studies have linked video gaming to behavior and mental health problems, such as increases in depression, violence, aggressive behavior, and compulsive use," says Dr. Volkow. "However, this study suggests that there may also be cognitive benefits associated with this popular pastime, which are worthy of further investigation." She emphasizes that the association between video games and mental health is not clear-cut.

Case in point: This study also didn't look at the types of video games that kids play. "A video game's content matters," says Dr. Poinsett. "Excessively playing games that simulate violence may increase aggressive behavior, while games that are obstacle-based may improve a child's creativity and problem-solving skills."

One benefit of this study is that it will follow the same children as they grow up because the data came from the ongoing Adolescent Brain Cognitive Development (ABCD) Study. This will give researchers some more data on the long-term effects of video gaming.

"The ABCD Study provides us with a powerful tool to continue to investigate the complex relationship between video games and brain development, and to determine how different levels of these activities at different stages of development may impact brain function, cognitive performance, and mental health throughout adolescence and beyond," says Dr. Volkow.

What This Means for You

If your child plays a lot of video games it might not be all that bad for them, according to a new study. The research shows gaming has some cognitive benefits for children. But there are still concerns excess video game playing is also associated with aggressive behavior and depression. For this reason, it's best to limit your older child to the AAP's recommendation of one to two hours of gaming each day.

Future research may help us to understand more about which types of games have more negative or positive effects. Until then, rest assured that allowing your child to play a reasonable amount of video games could give them a cognitive boost.

7 Sources
Verywell Family uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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By Elisa Cinelli
Elisa is a well-known parenting writer who is passionate about providing research-based content to help parents make the best decisions for their families. She has written for well-known sites including POPSUGAR and Scary Mommy, among others.