Many parents feel guilty when their children play video games for hours. Some even worry that it will make their children less intelligent. And, indeed, it is a subject on which scientists have clashed for years.
In our new study, we investigated how video games affect children’s minds, by interviewing and testing over 5,000 children between the ages of 10 and 12. And the results, published in Scientific Reports, will surprise some.
Children were asked how many hours a day they spent on social media, watching videos or television, and playing video games. The answer was: many hours. On average, children spend two and a half hours a day watching videos or TV programs online, half an hour socializing online and one 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 found that it has increased dramatically over the decades. Screens existed in previous generations, but now they truly define childhood.
Is this a bad thing? Well, it’s complicated. There could be both advantages and disadvantages for the development of children’s minds. And these may depend on the outcome you envision. For our study, we were particularly 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 trait in our lives and highly predictive of a child’s future income, happiness, and longevity. In research, it is often measured in terms of performance on a wide range of cognitive tests. For our study, we created an intelligence index from five tasks: two on reading comprehension and vocabulary, one on attention and executive function (which includes working memory, flexible thinking and self-control), one assessing visual-spatial processing (such as rotating objects in your mind), and one on learning ability over multiple trials.
This isn’t the first time someone has studied the effect of screens on intelligence, but the research, so far, has produced mixed results. So what’s special this time around? The novelty of our study is that we took into account genes and socio-economic background. So far, only a few studies have taken socioeconomic status (household income, parental education, and neighborhood quality) into account, and no study has taken genetic effects into account.
Genes are important because intelligence is highly inherited. If left unaddressed, these factors could mask the true effect of screen time on children’s intelligence. For example, children born with certain genes might be more likely to watch television and independently have learning problems. The genetic lottery is a major confounder in any psychological process, but until recently this was difficult to account for in scientific studies due to the high costs of genome analysis and technological limitations.
The data we used for our study are part of a massive US data collection effort to better understand child development: the Adolescent Brain and Cognitive Development Project. Our sample was representative of the United States in terms of gender, race, ethnicity, and socioeconomic status.
We found that when we first asked the child at age ten how much he played, watched videos and socialized online were linked to below-average intelligence. During this time, the game was not related to intelligence at all. These screen time results are mostly consistent with previous research. But when we followed up at a later date, we found that gambling had a positive and significant effect on intelligence.
While kids who played more video games at age ten were on average no smarter than kids who didn’t, they showed the most intelligence gains after two years in both boys and girls. . For example, a child who was in the top 17% in terms of hours spent playing increased their IQ about 2.5 points more than the average child over two years.
This is proof of a beneficial causal effect of video games on intelligence. This finding matches previous smaller studies, where participants are randomly assigned to play video games or a control group. Our finding is also consistent with lines of parallel studies suggesting that cognitive abilities are not fixed, but trainable – including studies with cognitive training intervention applications.
What about the other two types of screen activity? Social media did not affect the change in intelligence after two years. The many hours of instagram and messaging did not stimulate the intelligence of the children, but it was not detrimental 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 ‘socio-economic status’ factor). . 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 academic performance and cognitive abilities. But these results are rare.
When thinking about 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 play. But for parents embarrassed about their kids playing video games, you can now feel better knowing it’s probably making them a little smarter.