HOUSTON — Parents have been worrying about their children’s video game habits for decades. From classic renditions of Mario and Luigi to more modern gaming hits like Fortnite, moms and dads the world over spend countless collective hours stressing over the potential impact of gaming on young minds. However, a team from the University of Houston suggests that video games have little impact on cognition at all.
While researchers didn’t see any cognitive drawbacks to playing video games, they also didn’t find any benefits either — even among video games marketed as promoting kids’ development and thinking skills. Notably, these findings remained consistent regardless of the variety of video game and time spent playing.
“Our studies turned up no such links, regardless of how long the children played and what types of games they chose,” says researcher Jie Zhang, an associate professor of curriculum and instruction at Houston’s College of Education, in a university release.
To reach these findings, study authors analyzed the video gaming habits of 160 diverse urban public-school preteen students (70% living in lower income households). This dataset is notable because it represents an age group that scientists rarely study. Participating kids reported playing video games for an average of two-and-a-half hours per day. The most frequent gamers reported playing for as long as four-and-a-half hours daily.
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More specifically, the research team searched for any and all associations between the students’ video game play and their performance on the standardized Cognitive Ability Test 7 (CogAT). That test serves to gauge verbal, quantitative and nonverbal/spatial skills. The team chose CogAT as a standard measure for this reason, as opposed to the teacher-reported grades or self-reported learning assessments that previous research projects typically relied on.
“Overall, neither duration of play nor choice of video game genres had significant correlations with the CogAT measures. That result shows no direct linkage between video game playing and cognitive performance, despite what had been assumed,” notes principal investigator May Jadalla, a professor in the School of Teaching and Learning at Illinois State University.
This study also sheds light on yet another issue. Many types of video games claim that they help children build healthy cognitive skills. Upon further examination, however, these games showed no measurable ability to help kids’ cognition.
“The current study found results that are consistent with previous research showing that types of gameplay that seem to augment cognitive functions in young adults don’t have the same impact in much younger children,” adds C. Shawn Green, a professor in the Department of Psychology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
Gaming can still distract kids from other important tasks
So, should parents worry less about their kids spending countless hours with a controller in hand? Perhaps, but the research team also makes it a point to note that gaming time took the heaviest players’ away from other, more productive activities (like homework) through a process psychologists call displacement. Still, even in those cases, differences were minimal between these participants and their peers’ CogAT cognitive ability scores.
“The study results show parents probably don’t have to worry so much about cognitive setbacks among video game-loving children, up to fifth grade. Reasonable amounts of video gaming should be OK, which will be delightful news for the kids. Just keep an eye out for obsessive behavior,” Prof. Zhang concludes. “When it comes to video games, finding common ground between parents and young kids is tricky enough. At least now we understand that finding balance in childhood development is the key, and there’s no need for us to over-worry about video gaming.”
The study is published in the journal Media Psychology.