Since the 1970s, video games have sparked debate. Concerns have been raised by parents and children’s advocates that violent video games can influence young players to commit violent acts in real life. However, video games are also thought to be beneficial to both the mind and the body. Action video game players had higher hand-eye coordination and visuomotor abilities than nonplayers.
According to a recent study, playing video games might even boost your intelligence. Researchers at Sweden’s Karolinska Institute examined how children’s screen habits link with how their cognitive abilities grow over time.
They discovered that youngsters who spent more time than average playing video games increased their IQ more than the average, however TV watching or social media had no effect. The results have been published in the journal Scientific Reports.
Children are spending more and more time in front of screens. How this affects their health and whether it has a positive or negative impact on their cognitive abilities are hotly debated. For this present study, researchers at Karolinska Institute and Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam specifically studied the link between screen habits and intelligence over time.
Over 9,000 boys and girls in the USA participated in the study. At the age of nine or ten, the children performed a battery of psychological tests to gauge their general cognitive abilities (intelligence). The children and their parents were also asked about how much time the children spent watching TV and videos, playing video games, and engaging with social media.
Just over 5,000 of the children were followed up after two years, at which point they were asked to repeat the psychological tests. This enabled the researchers to study how the children’s performance on the tests varied from one testing session to the other and to control for individual differences in the first test. They also controlled for genetic differences that could affect intelligence and differences that could be related to the parent’s educational background and income.
On average, the children spent 2.5 hours a day watching TV, half an hour on social media, and 1-hour playing video games. The results showed that those who played more games than the average increased their intelligence between the two measurements by approximately 2.5 IQ points more than the average. No significant effect was observed, positive or negative, on TV-watching or social media.
“We didn’t examine the effects of screen behavior on physical activity, sleep, wellbeing, or school performance, so we can’t say anything about that,” says Torkel Klingberg, professor of cognitive neuroscience at the Department of Neuroscience, Karolinska Institute. “But our results support the claim that screen time generally doesn’t impair children’s cognitive abilities and that playing video games can help boost intelligence. This is consistent with several experimental studies of video-game playing.”
The results are also in line with recent research showing that intelligence is not a constant, but a quality that is influenced by environmental factors.
“We’ll now be studying the effects of other environmental factors and how the cognitive effects relate to childhood brain development,” says Torkel Klingberg.
Empirically, the cognitive benefits of video games have been supported by multiple observational and experimental studies. Their benefits to intelligence and school performance make intuitive sense and are aligned with theories of active learning and the power of deliberate practice. There is also a parallel line of evidence from the literature on cognitive training intervention apps, which can be considered a special (lab developed) category of video games and seem to challenge some of the same cognitive processes. Though, like for other digital activities, there are contradictory findings for video games, some with no effects, and some with negative effects.
One limitation of the study is that it only covered US children and did not differentiate between different types of video games, which makes the results difficult to transfer to children in other countries with other gaming habits. There was also a risk of reporting errors since screen time and habits were self-rated.
The study was financed by the Swedish Research Council and the Strategic Research Area Neuroscience (StratNeuro) at Karolinska Institute. The researchers report no conflicts of interest.