Picture this: a cold, snowy, sleety day and the kids have been playing video games (Mario Kart, in my house) for too many hours because they have exhausted all the activities you (or they) could think of. Easy to picture, right?
Picture this: you, as the parent, are able to release some of the guilt you feel over the amount of time they’ve spent staring at a screen and clicking buttons. Harder to picture, right — at least for me. Screen time guilt is one of my parenting constants. But maybe not for long.
A recent study published by the University of Vermont’s department of psychiatry found that playing video games could be beneficial to kids’ brains, particularly in the areas of impulse control and memory.
In the study, which analyzed data from more than 2,000 children ages 9 and 10, researchers compared kids who played for three or more hours per day against kids who didn’t play at all. The gamers performed better on tests that measured impulse control and the ability to memorize information. MRI brain imaging confirmed the results. The gamers showed “higher brain activity in regions of the brain associated with attention and memory” as compared to the non-gamers. The same was true for regions of the brain associated with “more cognitively demanding tasks.”
Researchers were optimistic about their findings, though they recognized the study’s results were limited. The scientists couldn’t establish cause and effect — meaning it was unclear whether the video games themselves caused the cognitive benefits, or if kids with higher brain function in these areas simply gravitated toward video game playing. Either way, the results are “encouraging,” said Bader Chaarani, Ph.D., assistant professor of psychiatry at the University of Vermont and the lead author on the study, who noted, “[I]t is crucial that we better understand both the positive and negative impact that such games may have.”
The study out of Vermont is not the only one to find that video games might not be as bad as we once thought. As it turns out, video game playing has a handful of other positive benefits worth paying attention to.
Video Games Develop Problem-Solving Skills
A 2013 comprehensive review of research on video games by the American Psychological Association (APA) found that the more adolescents played video games, particularly role-playing video games, the more they demonstrated problem-solving skills. Likewise, their creativity improved.
Video Games May Provide An Emotional Benefit
In the same study, researchers found that quick and easy-to-access games like “Angry Birds” can improve mood, keep anxiety at bay, and help with relaxation. Lead study author Isabela Granic, Ph.D. noted that, “If playing video games simply makes people happier, this seems to be a fundamental emotional benefit to consider.”
Video Games Encourage Positive Social Behavior
Often when we think video games, we think lonely, isolated, and anti-social. That’s not the case. In an article discussing the 2013 study, the American Psychological Association confirmed that “More than 70 percent of gamers play with a friend, and millions of people worldwide participate in massive virtual worlds through video games.”
These virtual communities encourage social and cooperative behavior. A 2015 study out of Texas Tech even found that “playing video games cooperatively with others can lead to widespread benefits by making players think helpful behaviors are valuable and commonplace.” This was true even when the game was violent — the cooperation decreased the level of aggression players demonstrated.
Other Cognitive Benefits: Spatial Navigation And Executive Functioning
A 2014 article published in The American Journal of Play compiled all the research on the benefits of video games. Among the benefits included in the list were improved spatial navigation, improved ability to track objects, and improvements in executive functioning.
“This has critical implications for education and career development, as previous research has established the power of spatial skills for achievement in science, technology, engineering and mathematics,” said Granic.
One encouraging study also found video games could support children with dyslexia. The researchers found that “video games actually help increase children’s reading speed. The research found that 10 children with dyslexia who played action video games improved the speed at which they could proceed through a text.” Regardless of your feelings about video games, there’s no doubt this is a potential benefit that could be life-changing for some children.
Balance Is Key
Video games have long gotten a bad rap — but the more we learn about video games, the more we’re beginning to see that there are some benefits of video games. Arguably, a lot of benefits. Of course, those benefits don’t entirely negate the dangers, which have also been studied and widely discussed. They simply exist alongside them. Which means, as always, maybe all we can do as parents is try to find a little balance.
Now, if only that balance was easier to find on those days when we’re all snowed in, bored, and out of creative ideas. Until it is, I’ll just have to make myself at home next to the kids — and call “next” for a spin around the Mario Kart track.
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