Summary: Children who play video games for three or more hours per day performed better on cognitive skill tests for working memory and impulse control than those who do not game.
A study of nearly 2,000 children found that those who reported playing video games for three hours per day or more performed better on cognitive skills tests involving impulse control and working memory compared to children who had never played video games.
Published today in JAMA Network Open, this study analyzed data from the ongoing Adolescent Brain Cognitive Development (ABCD) Study, which is supported by the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) and other entities of the National Institutes of Health.
“This study adds to our growing understanding of the associations between playing video games and brain development,” said NIDA Director Nora Volkow, M.D.
“Numerous studies have linked video gaming to behavior and mental health problems. This study suggests that there may also be cognitive benefits associated with this popular pastime, which are worthy of further investigation.”
Although a number of studies have investigated the relationship between video gaming and cognitive behavior, the neurobiological mechanisms underlying the associations are not well understood. Only a handful of neuroimaging studies have addressed this topic, and the sample sizes for those studies have been small, with fewer than 80 participants.
To address this research gap, scientists at the University of Vermont, Burlington, analyzed data obtained when children entered the ABCD Study at ages 9 and 10 years old. The research team examined survey, cognitive, and brain imaging data from nearly 2,000 participants from within the bigger study cohort.
They separated these children into two groups, those who reported playing no video games at all and those who reported playing video games for three hours per day or more. This threshold was selected as it exceeds the American Academy of Pediatrics screen time guidelines, which recommend that videogaming time be limited to one to two hours per day for older children.
For each group, the investigators evaluated the children’s performance on two tasks that reflected their ability to control impulsive behavior and to memorize information, as well as the children’s brain activity while performing the tasks.
The researchers found that the children who reported playing video games for three or more hours per day were faster and more accurate on both cognitive tasks than those who never played. They also observed that the differences in cognitive function observed between the two groups was accompanied by differences in brain activity.
Functional MRI brain imaging analyses found that children who played video games for three or more hours per day showed higher brain activity in regions of the brain associated with attention and memory than did those who never played.
At the same time, those children who played at least three hours of videogames per day showed more brain activity in frontal brain regions that are associated with more cognitively demanding tasks and less brain activity in brain regions related to vision.
The researchers think these patterns may stem from practicing tasks related to impulse control and memory while playing videogames, which can be cognitively demanding, and that these changes may lead to improved performance on related tasks.
Furthermore, the comparatively low activity in visual areas among children who reported playing video games may reflect that this area of the brain may become more efficient at visual processing as a result of repeated practice through video games.
While prior studies have reported associations between video gaming and increases in depression, violence, and aggressive behavior, this study did not find that to be the case.
Though children who reported playing video games for three or more hours per day did tend to report higher mental health and behavioral issues compared to children who played no video games, the researchers found that this association was not statistically significant, meaning that the authors could not rule out whether this trend reflected a true association or chance.
They note that this will be an important measure to continue to track and understand as the children mature.
Further, the researchers stress that this cross-sectional study does not allow for cause-and-effect analyses, and that it could be that children who are good at these types of cognitive tasks may choose to play video games.
The authors also emphasize that their findings do not mean that children should spend unlimited time on their computers, mobile phones, or TVs, and that the outcomes likely depend largely on the specific activities children engage in.
For instance, they hypothesize that the specific genre of video games, such as action-adventure, puzzle solving, sports, or shooting games, may have different effects for neurocognitive development, and this level of specificity on the type of video game played was not assessed by the study.
“While we cannot say whether playing video games regularly caused superior neurocognitive performance, it is an encouraging finding, and one that we must continue to investigate in these children as they transition into adolescence and young adulthood,” said Bader Chaarani, Ph.D., assistant professor of psychiatry at the University of Vermont and the lead author on the study.
“Many parents today are concerned about the effects of video games on their children’s health and development, and as these games continue to proliferate among young people, it is crucial that we better understand both the positive and negative impact that such games may have.”
Through the ABCD Study, researchers will be able to conduct similar analyses for the same children over time into early adulthood, to see if changes in video gaming behavior are linked to changes in cognitive skills, brain activity, behavior, and mental health.
The longitudinal study design and comprehensive data set will also enable them to better account for various other factors in the children’s families and environment that may influence their cognitive and behavioral development, such as exercise, sleep quality, and other influences.
The ABCD Study, the largest of its kind in the United States, is tracking nearly 12,000 youth as they grow into young adults. Investigators regularly measure participants’ brain structure and activity using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and collect psychological, environmental, and cognitive information, as well as biological samples.
The goal of the study is to understand the factors that influence brain, cognitive, and social-emotional development, to inform the development of interventions to enhance a young person’s life trajectory.
The Adolescent Brain Cognitive Development Study and ABCD Study are registered service marks and trademarks, respectively, of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
About this cognition and gaming research news
Author: NIDA Press Office Source: NIH Contact: NIDA Press Office – NIH Image: The image is in the public domain
Video gaming may be associated with better cognitive performance in children
Although most research has linked video gaming to subsequent increases in aggressive behavior in children after accounting for prior aggression, findings have been divided with respect to video gaming’s association with cognitive skills.
To examine the association between video gaming and cognition in children using data from the Adolescent Brain Cognitive Development (ABCD) study.
Design, Setting, and Participants
In this case-control study, cognitive performance and blood oxygen level–dependent (BOLD) signal were compared in video gamers (VGs) and non–video gamers (NVGs) during response inhibition and working memory using task-based functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) in a large data set of 9- and 10-year-old children from the ABCD study, with good control of demographic, behavioral, and psychiatric confounding effects. A sample from the baseline assessment of the ABCD 2.0.1 release in 2019 was largely recruited across 21 sites in the US through public, private, and charter elementary schools using a population neuroscience approach to recruitment, aiming to mirror demographic variation in the US population. Children with valid neuroimaging and behavioral data were included. Some exclusions included common MRI contraindications, history of major neurologic disorders, and history of traumatic brain injury.
Participants completed a self-reported screen time survey including an item asking children to report the time specifically spent on video gaming. All fMRI tasks were performed by all participants.
Main Outcomes and Measures
Video gaming time, cognitive performance, and BOLD signal assessed with n-back and stop signal tasks on fMRI. Collected data were analyzed between October 2019 and October 2020.
A total of 2217 children (mean [SD] age, 9.91 [0.62] years; 1399 [63.1%] female) participated in this study. The final sample used in the stop signal task analyses consisted of 1128 NVGs (0 gaming hours per week) and 679 VGs who played at least 21 hours per week. The final sample used in the n-back analyses consisted of 1278 NVGs who had never played video games (0 hours per week of gaming) and 800 VGs who played at least 21 hours per week. The VGs performed better on both fMRI tasks compared with the NVGs. Nonparametric analyses of fMRI data demonstrated a greater BOLD signal in VGs in the precuneus during inhibitory control. During working memory, a smaller BOLD signal was observed in VGs in parts of the occipital cortex and calcarine sulcus and a larger BOLD signal in the cingulate, middle, and frontal gyri and the precuneus.
Conclusions and Relevance
In this study, compared with NVGs, VGs were found to exhibit better cognitive performance involving response inhibition and working memory as well as altered BOLD signal in key regions of the cortex responsible for visual, attention, and memory processing. The findings are consistent with videogaming improving cognitive abilities that involve response inhibition and working memory and altering their underlying cortical pathways.