our study suggests they boost intelligence in children

Many parents feel guilty when their children play video games for hours on end. Some even fear it could make their children less smart. And indeed, that’s a topic that scientists have been clashing over for years.

In our new study, we examined how video games affect children’s minds by interviewing and testing more than 5,000 children ages 10 to 12. And the results, published in Scientific Reports, may be surprising to some.

Children were asked how many hours a day they spend on social media, watching videos or TV, and playing video games. The answer was: many hours. On average, children spent two and a half hours a day watching online videos or TV shows, half an hour socializing online, and an hour playing video games.

In total, that’s four hours a day for the average child and six hours for the top 25% – a big chunk of a child’s free time. And other reports have shown that this has increased dramatically in recent decades. Screens were around in previous generations, but now they really define childhood.

Is that a bad thing? Well, it’s complicated. There can be both pros and cons to the developing minds of children. And these may depend on the result you are looking at. For our research, we were specifically interested in the effect of screen time on intelligence: the ability to learn effectively, think rationally, understand complex ideas and adapt to new situations.

Intelligence is an important quality in our lives and very predictive of a child’s future income, happiness and longevity. In research, it is often measured as performance on a wide variety of cognitive tests. For our research, we created an intelligence index of five tasks: two on reading comprehension and vocabulary, one on attention and executive functions (including working memory, flexible thinking and self-control), one that assesses visuospatial processing (such as rotating objects in your mind), and one about learning ability across multiple trials.

This isn’t the first time anyone has studied the effect of screens on intelligence, but research so far has yielded mixed results. So, what’s special this time? What is new about our research is that we have taken genes and socio-economic backgrounds into account. So far, only a few studies have considered socioeconomic status (family income, parental upbringing, and neighborhood quality), and none have considered genetic effects.

Genes are important because intelligence is highly heritable. If unexplained, these factors may mask the true effect of screen time on children’s intelligence. For example, children born with certain genes may be more likely to watch TV and, independently, have learning disabilities. The lottery of genetics is a major confounder in any psychological process, but until recently this has been difficult to explain in scientific studies due to the high cost of genome analysis and technological limitations.

The data we used for our research is part of a massive effort to collect data in the US to better understand child development: the Adolescent Brain and Cognitive Development project. Our sample was representative of the US in terms of gender, race, ethnicity, and socioeconomic status.

The results

We found that when we first asked the child at age 10 how much they played, both watching videos and socializing online were linked to below-average intelligence. Meanwhile, gaming was not linked to intelligence at all. These screen time results are largely in line with previous research. But when we followed up at a later date, we found that gaming had a positive and meaningful effect on intelligence.

Gaming will certainly not make your child any less smart.
Monkey Business Images/Shutterstock

While children who played more video games at ten years old were not on average more intelligent than children who did not game, they showed the most intelligence gains after two years, in both boys and girls. For example, a child who was in the top 17% of hours spent gaming increased his IQ by about 2.5 points more than the average child in two years.

This is evidence of a beneficial causal effect of video games on intelligence. This result fits with previous, smaller studies, where participants were randomly assigned to play video games or a control group. Our finding is also in line with parallel lines of research suggesting that cognitive skills are not fixed, but can be trained – including studies involving cognitive training intervention apps.

What about the other two types of screen activities? Social media did not affect the change in intelligence after two years. The hours of Instagramming and messaging didn’t help children’s intelligence, but it wasn’t harmful either. Finally, watching TV and online videos showed a positive effect in one of the analyses, but no effect when parental education was taken into account (as opposed to the broader factor of ‘socio-economic status’). This finding should therefore be taken with a grain of salt. There is some empirical support that high-quality TV/video content, such as the Sesame Street program, has a positive effect on children’s school performance and cognitive skills. But those results are rare.

As we consider the implications of these findings, it’s important to keep in mind that there are many other psychological aspects that we haven’t looked at, such as mental health, sleep quality, and exercise. Our results should not be taken as a general recommendation for all parents to allow unlimited gaming. But for those parents who are bothered by their kids playing video games, you can feel better now knowing it probably makes them a little smarter.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published.