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Video games do not harm children’s cognitive abilities

Today’s children spend more and more time playing video games as part of their leisure time. Parents are often concerned that this form of entertainment will be harmful to their children, and they seek clarity from scientists and psychologists. Much research has been done on the links between playing video games and various aspects of children’s emotional, social and cognitive development, but the results have sometimes been conflicting. 

What is known is that playing certain types of video games, known as action games, leads to positive changes in cognition in adults. Aspects such as attention and memory, as well as visual perception, show improvements in adults who play these specific games. Children have not been studied as often as adults, and the effects of gaming on their developing brains are not known. Despite this, parents are often encouraged to limit the time their children spend gaming each day.

A new, exploratory study has investigated whether the nature and extent of video gaming by pre-teenage children has any effects on cognitive ability. Their findings, published in the Journal of Media Psychology, challenge the warnings that parents have been issued for years that children who spend hour after hour playing video games, or choose games of certain genres, will manifest unhealthy results in their cognitive development.

“Our studies turned up no such links, regardless of how long the children played and what types of games they chose,” said Jie Zhang, associate professor of curriculum and instruction at the University of Houston College of Education, and a member of the research team.

The researchers assessed the gaming habits of 160 urban public-school preteen students (70 percent from lower income households), which represents an age group less studied in previous research. Participating students reported the time spent playing video games each day, and also took a standardized Cognitive Ability Test 7, also known as CogAT. This test evaluates verbal, quantitative and nonverbal/spatial skills, and is a well-recognized test of cognitive ability that is more objective than using teachers’ grades or self-reported learning assessments, as have been used in previous research. 

The participants reported playing video games for an average of 2.5 hours daily, with the group’s heaviest gamers putting in as much as 4.5 hours each day. However, the researchers found no links between the time spent gaming and the child’s cognitive development. Furthermore, the content of the video games also did not correlate with differences in cognitive ability.

“Overall, neither duration of play nor choice of video game genres had significant correlations with the CogAT measures. That result shows no direct linkage between video game playing and cognitive performance, despite what had been assumed,” said May Jadalla, professor in the School of Teaching and Learning at Illinois State University and the study’s principal investigator.

But the study revealed another side of the issue, too. Children who played the types of games described as helping to build healthy cognitive skills did not achieve better results on the cognitive tests. Playing these games had no measurable effects on cognition, despite the games’ marketing messages.

“The current study found results that are consistent with previous research showing that types of gameplay that seem to augment cognitive functions in young adults don’t have the same impact in much younger children,” said C. Shawn Green, professor in the Department of Psychology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Do these findings suggest that children can play on, unhindered? Perhaps, from the perspective of cognitive development. However, experts caution that gaming can have more serious consequences in other avenues of life. For example, gaming takes children away from their other, more productive activities, such as doing homework, playing sport or spending social time with friends and family. Excessive gaming can lead to social isolation and poor performance at school, even if it does not affect a child’s innate cognitive abilities.

“The study results show parents probably don’t have to worry so much about cognitive setbacks among video game-loving children, up to fifth grade. Reasonable amounts of video gaming should be OK, which will be delightful news for the kids. Just keep an eye out for obsessive behavior,” said Zhang. “When it comes to video games, finding common ground between parents and young kids is tricky enough. At least now we understand that finding balance in childhood development is the key, and there’s no need for us to over-worry about video gaming.”

By Alison Bosman, Staff Writer

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