Findings from a brain imaging study published in JAMA Network Open suggest that playing video games may be beneficial for children’s cognitive development. The study found that children who regularly played video games performed better on two cognitive tasks and showed altered cortical activation patterns in regions of the brain implicated in attention, memory, and visual processing.
Video games are more popular than ever among youth, with surveys suggesting that the majority of children and adolescents play them. During these formative years, the brain undergoes many changes, leading researchers to question whether video gaming might impact children’s cognitive development.
Research into the association between video gaming and cognition has been largely inconclusive, but there’s some evidence of beneficial effects. Specifically, studies have pointed to possible attentional and working memory benefits associated with video gaming.
Study author Bader Chaarani and his team sought to build on past findings by including neuroimaging data, something few past studies have done. The researchers collected data from the Adolescent Brain Cognitive Development (ABCD) study, a longitudinal study of brain development and child health in the United States. They focused on data from the study’s baseline assessment, resulting in a final sample of 2,217 children between the ages of 9 and 10.
“As a video gamer since my childhood and co-investigator in the ABCD study, I was naturally interested in exploring in a large sample of children how video gaming is associated with brain function and cognition,” said Chaarani, an assistant professor at the University of Vermont. “The large longitudinal ABCD study dataset enables us to track these gamers from 9 and 10 years old through adolescence and young adulthood, and examine the impact of video games on different aspects such as brain function, neurocognition, mental health and behavior.”
The children performed two cognitive tasks while undergoing functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). These were the stop signal task (SST), a test of inhibitory control, and the n-back task, a test of working memory. The children also reported how many hours a day they spent engaged in screen time, including separate questions for playing video games and watching videos.
The researchers analyzed whether video gamers (children who played 3 or more hours per day) and non-video gamers (children who played 0 hours per day) differed in their performance and brain activation patterns during the cognitive tasks.
First, it was found that the video gamers outperformed the non-video gamers on both the stop signal task and the n-back task. Next, it was found that the video gamers showed differences in blood oxygen level-dependent (BOLD) activity in certain brain areas. Specifically, the gamers showed an enhanced BOLD signal in parts of the precuneus during the task that tested inhibitory control. The precuneus is an area of the brain implicated in functions like attention, memory, and integration of information.
On the working memory task, the gamers showed a weaker BOLD signal in occipital areas, the visual processing areas of the brain. This may suggest that video gaming led to better neural efficiency in visuomotor areas. Video gamers also showed increased activation in the cingulate, middle, and frontal gyri, and the precuneus.
“Our study show that video gaming may be associated with faster reaction times and superior working memory, along with brain function changes in areas involved in vision, attention and memory processing,” Chaarani told PsyPost.
These findings remained significant after controlling for the potential confounds of behavioral problems and psychiatric disorders. Importantly, the findings were also significant after controlling for video watching (e.g., time spent watching YouTube videos), suggesting that the brain activation differences were specific to video gaming more than video watching.
“Unlike previous studies reporting detrimental effects of gaming on cognition, our data suggests the opposite,” Chaarani said.
An important limitation of the study was that there was no data on the genre of video games played — and different types of video games (i.e., action-adventure games, shooter games, single vs. multiplayer games) might have different effects on cognition. “We haven’t investigated the potential impact of different video gaming genre yet,” Chaarani said.
The overall findings suggest that video gaming is linked to improved performance on cognitive tasks involving response inhibition and working memory. “Future ABCD data releases will allow researchers to test for longitudinal effects in which video gaming might improve response inhibition, working memory, and other cognitive functions,” Chaarani and his colleagues write. Future work will also allow researchers to evaluate any behavioral or neurocognitive changes that may be associated with video gaming during adolescence.
The study, “Association of Video Gaming With Cognitive Performance Among Children”, was authored by Bader Chaarani, Joseph Ortigara, DeKang Yuan, Hannah Loso, Alexandra Potter, and Hugh P. Garavan.