Many parents feel guilty when their children play video games for hours. Some even worry that this could make their children smarter. And indeed, this is a topic that scientists have been debating for years.
In our new study, we interviewed and tested more than 5,000 children between the ages of ten and 12 to see how video games affect children’s minds. The results, published in the journal Scientific Reports, may surprise some.
Children were asked how many hours a day they would watch social media, watch videos, or play video games. Answer: A lot of hours. On average, children spent two and a half hours a day watching online videos or TV programs, half an hour chatting online, and an hour playing video games.
In general, this is four hours per day for the average child and six hours for the top 25% – a large part of a child’s free time. And other reports show that this has increased dramatically over the decades. Screens were in previous generations, but now they really define childhood.
Is this a bad thing? Yes, it’s complicated. Children can have both advantages and disadvantages for mental development. And these may depend on the result you are looking at. For our study, we were interested in the effects of screen time on intelligence – the ability to learn effectively, to think rationally, to understand complex ideas, and to adapt to new situations.
Intelligence is an important feature of our lives and can predict a child’s future income, happiness and longevity. In research, it is often measured across a wide range of cognitive tests. For our study, we created an intelligence index of five tasks: two for reading comprehension and vocabulary, one for attention and executive function (including working memory, flexible thinking and self-management), and one for assessing visual-spatial processes (e.g. objects in your mind) and one on the ability to learn from multiple tests.
This isn’t the first time someone has studied the effects of screens on intelligence, but studies have already yielded mixed results. So what is special about this time? The novelty of our study took into account genes and socio-economic factors. So far, only a few studies have looked at socioeconomic status (household income, parental education, and neighborhood quality) and have not taken genetic influences into account in any of the studies.
Gender is important because intelligence is hereditary. If not taken into account, these factors may obscure the real impact of screen time on children’s intelligence. For example, children born with certain genes may be more prone to watching television and have learning problems on their own. The genetics lottery is a major confusion in any psychological process, but until recently it has been difficult to account for in scientific research due to the high cost of genomic analysis and technological limitations.
The data we used for the study were part of a U.S. effort to gather information to better understand childhood development: the Adolescent Brain and Cognitive Development Project. Our model represented the United States by gender, race, ethnicity, and socioeconomic status.
When we first asked a ten-year-old how much he played, we found that both watching videos and chatting online were associated with below-average intelligence. At the same time, the game had nothing to do with the mind. These results on screen time are largely consistent with previous studies. However, we later found that playing games had a positive and significant effect on intelligence.
Although children who played more video games for ten years were left with smarter children who did not, two years later, both boys and girls showed the greatest intellectual progress. For example, a child in the top 17% of hours spent on play had an IQ of about 2.5 points higher than the average child over two years.
This is evidence of the beneficial effects of video games on the intellect. This result is consistent with previous, small-scale studies in which participants were randomly assigned to play a video game or to a control group. Our findings are consistent with parallel lines of research that suggest that cognitive abilities are not sustainable but can be taught, including studies with cognitive exercise intervention guidelines.
What about the other two types of on-screen activities? Social media has not influenced the change in intelligence after two years. Many hours of Instagram and messages did not increase the intelligence of children, but did no harm. Finally, watching television and online videos showed a positive result in one of the analyzes, but no effect in terms of parental knowledge (as opposed to a broader factor of “socioeconomic status”). Thus, this finding should be taken with salt grains. There is empirical evidence that high-quality TV / video content, such as the Sesame Street program, has a positive effect on children’s school achievement and cognitive abilities. However, such results are rare.
When thinking about the consequences of these findings, it is important to keep in mind that there are many other psychological aspects that we do not consider, such as mental health, sleep quality, and exercise. Our results should not be taken as a general recommendation to allow unlimited play for all parents. But for parents who are playing video games with their children, you can feel better knowing that this makes them a little smarter.