Study: Playing video games puts young girls at risk of isolation, delayed social skills

WASHINGTON — Playing video games frequently won’t affect the social development of boys, but young girls were at greater risk of experiencing isolation and delayed social skills, according to a new longitudinal study of children ages 6-12.

With the popularity of video games steadily rising around the world, parents, educators, and policymakers have raised concerns about how these ubiquitous interactive modes of entertainment affect the development of children and teenagers. Most previous research on the effects of gaming on youth focused on violent video games and negative emotional and mental defects such as aggression, anxiety, and depression.

This latest work, conducted in Norway, which only examined how video game play affects children’s social skills, showed that playing these interactive games affected youth differently across age and gender. Specifically, it showed that the amount of time boys spent playing video games had no correlation to their social development.

But when it came to girls, social growth was impacted for some. The authors found that 10-year-old girls who played video games often had less social competence than 12-year-olds than girls who weren’t regular gamers. Additionally, young girls who gamed regularly were more likely to show signs of social isolation, which stymied their ability to socialize their peers, thus worsening their social competence.

The study also showed that children with social issues at ages 8 and 10 were more likely to play video games regularly at ages 10 and 12.

“It might be that poor social competence drives youth’s tendency to play video games for extensive periods of time,” says co-author Lars Wichstrøm, professor of psychology at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU), in a statement. “That is, youth who struggle socially might be more inclined to play games to fulfill their need to belong and their desire for mastery because gaming is easily accessible and may be less complicated for them than face-to-face interactions.”

The study included 873 Norwegian children from a wide range of socioeconomic backgrounds. Researchers took data every other year starting when the children were six and continuing until they were 12. When the children were 10 and 12, they self-reported how much time they spent playing video games on tablets, PCs, game consoles, and smartphones. When the children were six and eight, their parents reported this information.

The children’s teachers then completed questionnaires about the children’s and adolescents’ social competence such as measures of cooperation, assertion, and self-control. The youth also revealed how often they played video games with friends.

“Our study may mitigate some concerns about the adverse effects of gaming on children’s development,” adds lead author Beate Wold Hygen, a postdoctoral fellow at the NTNU and NTNU Social Research. “It might not be gaming itself that warrants our attention, but the reasons some children and adolescents spend a lot of their spare time playing the games.”

The study was a collaborative effort by researchers at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology, NTNU Social Research, the University of California Davis, and St. Olav’s Hospital in Norway.

The study was published in the journal Child Development.

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