December 5, 2023

A study published on October 24 in Journal of the American Medical Association Network Open finds a potential association between video gaming and improved cognitive performance in children. These effects were only present in those who reported playing video games for three or more hours daily.

Led by Bader Chaarani, assistant professor at the University of Vermont, the research team analyzed data pulled from the ongoing Adolescent Brain Cognitive Development (ABCD) Study, which is “the largest long-term study of brain development and child health in the United States.” The ABCD Study is tracking the biological and behavioral development of around 12,000 participants, who joined the study at nine or 10 years old, into young adulthood.

For this study, Chaarani and his team analyzed data from 2,217 of the ABCD Study participants. Their analysis showed that children who reported 21 hours of gaming per week, which averages out to three hours per day, performed better on working memory assessments as measured by functional magnetic resonance imaging. Additionally, video gamers had altered blood oxygen level-dependent (BOLD) signals in the brain regions concerning attention, visual, and memory processing. BOLD signals are used as an indicator of neuronal activity in the brain. In Chaarani’s study, elevated BOLD signals were recorded in a brain region involved in attention, information integration, and memory.

Until now, the handful of neuroimaging studies exploring the links between gaming and cognition had rather small sample sizes—fewer than 100 participants. With a sample size 25 times larger than those of previous studies, this new study offers strong support for the hypothesis that video gaming can positively impact cognitive performance.

Passive vs active screen time

The altered BOLD levels and active memory task performances among participants remained significant even when compared to watching video. This suggests that a child must be actively engaged with digital content, not just passively consuming it, to yield the positive effects on cognition.

Does genre matter?

In an interview with NPR a few days after the study was published, host Juana Summers asked Chaarani if a video game’s genre and type of gameplay is a factor in its effects on cognition. Chaarani responded, “We did not include that in this study. However, there are smaller studies that suggest that action/adventure and fast-paced games may have a different impact on the brain and behavior than problem-solving and logic games.”

It is important to note that while these particular results may be positive, there are still numerous adverse effects to excessive gaming, including vision problems, lack of exercise, and the development of psychological disorders.


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