A large-scale study released last month linking video games and cognitive health in 9 and 10 year olds has some pediatricians shifting their thinking toward the long-debated effects of video games.
The study, released in October, looked at the task-related parts of the brain in children who played no video games and those who played three hours a day. Of the 2,217 kids, those children who spent hours playing video games showed enhanced cognitive performance related to response inhibition (the suppression of actions that are inappropriate) and working memory.
Kelly Melistas, a psychologist with the Henry Ford Pediatric Behavioral Health program in metro Detroit, says, “It was definitely interesting because a lot of times, when it comes to video game concerns, it’s typically the opposite — how horrible they are for kids.”
Melistas, who spent part of her medical training in Chicago, says it was interesting that this research does point to video games “actually helping kids in some way.”
What does the study actually say?
This study took data from a large sample from 2019 of 9 and 10 year olds. The original researchers collected neuroimaging and behavioral data, while the recent study interpreted it to examine the association between video gaming and cognition in children.
“The group of young gamers showed more brain activity in the frontal brain and less activity in emotion, so essentially they theorize that the changes in the brain activity is due to the cognitively demanding nature of the games,” says Melistas.
“Frontal cortex regions of the brain are associated with more cognitively demanding tasks, and that part of the brain doesn’t develop until the mid 20s, so it might help kids as they get older with executive functioning skills,” she adds. “If this study continues, we might see that it helps to improve those tasks, and the time management, planning, and communication might get better.”
Kids who might want to argue the case that a Grand Theft Auto game is good for them are still in for a challenging argument at the dinner table. Melistas says there’s a difference in the overall health outcomes between a strategy and simulation games versus an overwhelmingly violent game.
What does it mean for kids and parents?
Parents have always had questions about maintaining a healthy relationship for kids who play video games, and consequently it’s been a huge topic for pediatricians, Melistas says.
For many parents and their kids, the issue arises when the video game time is over.
“I just had a patient where the topic of video games was the majority of the session,”
she says. “In this case, there was a rule of video game time only on the weekends and no access to violent games, but the parents were noticing a huge change in the patient’s behavior when asked to turn it off.”
While every child is different, she says allowing children a level of agency and control in the way video games are accessed can make all the difference. For some, like the patient she used as an example, simply agreeing to a set amount of time beforehand resolved the issue.
Melistas tried a different method with her own 9-year-old twins when she got them a Switch gaming console. Both kids had to agree to a “technology contract” before they could use the game.
“We made a list of five rules for phones, devices, etc., (but you can find them anywhere online) so that everyone is on the same page,” she says. “Basically it says ‘Here’s the rules,’ ‘Here’s how long you play them for,’ ‘Here’s the ones you can play,’ and they signed them.”
She says having parents and kids sign a contract means “having those conversations from the beginning, instead of backtracking and having those conversations after a problem happens.”
She also emphasizes that just because this new study says extended video game time is associated with better brain performance in some areas, doesn’t mean parents should let kids run wild with an iPad.
“Every kid is different and parents know their kids best,” she says. “It can become a bigger behavioral health challenge sometimes.”
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