by: Nate Widom
You can fight off monsters in an immersive world, push the pedal to the metal in your virtual dream car, or build a village made of blocks with your friends. Interactive experiences like this are now a significant component of American entertainment found in devices such as phones, consoles, and computers.
Due to the growing popularity of video games, chances are you have an adolescent in your life who may not want to put down the controller. A 2022 report from the entertainment software association states that 66% of Americans—about 215.5 million people—and 71% of children play video games.1 While video games may bring kids joy, wonder, and socialization, sometimes all that glitters isn’t gold. The subject is complex, but let’s dive into video games’ positive and negative effects on children.
Effects on the adolescent brain
When you examine research about video games and their effect on developing brains, things get complicated. Let’s get the good news out of the way. A 2022 study found that the child subjects who played 3+ hours a day performed better on tests involving impulse control and working memory. They had higher activity in the parts of the brain associated with attention and memory, along with the regions related to cognitively demanding tasks. The study also found no increases in depression, violence, and aggression at the time but noted that further research is necessary.2
But it doesn’t end there. Another 2022 study found that the children who played more hours of video games than average had their IQ increase by an average of 2.5 points over time.3
However, the types of games played make a difference. It has been observed that action games enhance visual skills like tracking and mentally rotating objects. In strategy games, gamers can multitask and make important long-term decisions, skills critical to the workforce.4
Now, for the bad news. David Greenfield, Ph.D., describes that video games provide pleasure via dopamine leading to a temporary rush. If a video game is taken away from an addicted adolescent, they will likely experience aggression, withdrawal symptoms, or behavioral problems. Video games are also structured so it’s hard to predict when you’ll score a win. Greenfield compares this phenomenon to a slot machine.4
Additionally, though some studies have found that children are more likely to neglect sleeping and eating while playing games,4 others have found that their food consumption actually increases while eating and gaming even when sensations of hunger do not.5
And that’s to name a few effects. Peter Grinspoon, MD, adds that gaming has been associated with insomnia, sleep deprivation, anxiety, depression, aggression, and circadian rhythm disorders. However, he and many other researchers believe more research is needed to examine the findings.6
Violence, Behavior, and Stress
Specific genres of video games are associated with violence, but how can this affect kids? There are two things to examine: whether playing violent games correlates to small-scale aggressive behavior and whether playing correlates to large-scale violence affecting the public, like mass shootings or vicious crime sprees.
Well, in terms of small-scale behavioral findings, there is still debate. For example, one recent study found that exposure to violent video games and television increases aggressive behavior, aggressive thoughts, and physiological arousal in children and young adults.7 Meanwhile, another found no conclusive link.8
Studies in 20129 and 202110 observed that gamers who played more casual or puzzle games had less stress than those who played action games or games with violent content. However, a 2019 study found that those who played fighting games felt more relaxed afterward.11
Regarding violent video games leading to more consequential forms of violence, experts generally find that video games are not to blame and that other factors are at play.
In 2015, the American Psychological Association reviewed previous findings after several media and political figures blamed video games for violent events. They found lacking evidence supporting a connection between violent video games and violent real-world behavior. The president of the association, Sandra L. Shullman, Ph.D. stated, “attributing violence to video gaming is not scientifically sound and draws attention away from other factors, such as a history of violence, which we know from the research is a major predictor of future violence.” However, the group did find a small “reliable” link of violent games to aggressive actions like yelling and pushing.12
Use in Education
Not all video games are designed purely for entertainment. Experts agree that video games that tackle educational goals can benefit youth if implemented smartly.
Northwestern University’s Early Intervention Research Group examined studies about children and educational video games. They determined that educational games are positive and effective, even referencing a study where children exhibited improved learning due to their bond with a character in a game.13
Research also finds that educational games can lead to enhanced learning and higher scores for older students. Texas A&M developed a game called Variant: Limits. The game occurs in a 3D world where players must stop the storms threatening the game environment by solving calculus equations. In a study of 2,000 Texas A&M calculus students, those who played saw higher test scores than those who didn’t, with those who completed the game seeing the most significant increase.14
The same developers created a game called Arte: Mecanas. In this game, you play as the head of the Italian Renaissance’s Medici family. Throughout the strategy game, players are educated on Renaissance art history and must balance affairs between the city-states during the historical period. Their research study indicated that art history students gained 25% more knowledge on exams after only two
hours of gameplay.15
Elements of major game series are also spun off for educational purposes. In 2018, an education-focused version of the popular game Minecraft was released. In this version, lessons are built using the game’s blocks to teach everything from STEM and coding to history and language arts.16 Similarly, in the Assassin’s Creed series, you play an assassin in a historically significant setting. Recent games include educational experiences separate from the game itself called “discovery tours.” In these tours, players experience worlds like ancient Egypt and Greece, all curated by historians.17
Harvard’s Graduate School of Education lists recommendations for an effective educational game. They write that educational games shall provide children with choice in their play style, develop curiosity, provide a fulfilling challenge, and encompass themes applicable to the real world.18 Obviously, video games vary, and all are not appropriate for an academic environment.
Use in Health and Fitness
Exergames are video games utilizing elements of physical activity. And the data shows that exergames are an effective tool for children for fun and fitness! Examples include Just Dance, Wii Sports, and even the Expresso Bikes on HAC’s fitness floor.
A 2016 study examined 55 children playing exergames—some with a healthy weight and some not. The researchers found that overweight students experienced positive changes in self-efficacy. In a two-year follow-up, 96% of the children in the study who previously never played sports ended up playing one. The researchers concluded that exergaming increased fitness levels and encouraged pursual of traditional physical activity.21
A 2021 study concluded that exergames might be able to combat childhood obesity as participants had positive changes to their BMI and body fat percentage.22
How to appropriately manage video games as a parent
No matter what conclusions you come to, as a parent, it’s important to play a role in your child’s relationship with video games and set healthy boundaries. Finding an appropriate balance is complex and may require consistent changes or experimentation. Here are some suggestions!
1. Only allow games when responsibilities are complete: Well-known psychologist Nancy M. Petry, Ph.D., suggests that children should play video games once all their homework and chores are finished.23 Treat gaming like a privilege!
2. Limit screen time: The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that children have a total screen time of less than 1 to 2 hours daily.24 A 2014 study found that children who played less than an hour a day were happier and more emotionally stable than kids who didn’t. Meanwhile, kids who played for 3+ hours were likelier to be unhappy.25
3. Research and examine game ratings: You’ll need to research if specific games are appropriate for children. Thankfully, the Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB) examines video games and then assigns a rating classified by age group. This information is at the bottom left of most video game covers.
4. Utilize settings: The FTC recommends checking parental control settings on modern gaming consoles. They advise turning off functions of online chatting, friend requests, and games deemed mature and implementing time limits
5. Check on older siblings: When older and younger kids are playing together, encourage video game choices that are appropriate for all ages present. A 2007 study found that kids who play with older siblings play mature games twice
6. Join the fun: Kill two birds with one stone! WebMD suggests that playing games with your children is ideal for bonding. Ask your child about their experience to determine whether a game suits them.29