NEWS

Video Games Have Potential to Boost Children's Intelligence, Study Finds

Verywell / Alex Dos Diaz

Key Takeaways

  • A new study found kids who spent more time playing video games showed above-average intelligence upon follow-up.
  • TV watching and social media did not appear to impact intelligence levels of participants.
  • While some measures assess for intelligence, there can be limitations with such tests, so kids should be encouraged to engage in learning at all levels.

Many people enjoy playing video games for stress relief. A new study published in the journal Scientific Reports found that children who spent more time playing video games demonstrated increased intelligence at follow-up.

Researchers studied how the screen habits of American children impacted their cognitive abilities over time, and found that the children who spent an above-average time playing video games increased their intelligence more than the average, while TV watching or social media had no effect.

Given the limitations of measures of intelligence, those working with children should make every effort to promote inclusive learning.

Understanding the Research

For this study, researchers had 9,855 American children, aged 9-10 perform psychological tests to gauge their general cognitive abilities. 2 years later they followed up with over 5,000 kids and parents, who were also asked about their time spent watching TV, playing video games and on social media.

Researchers found that kids who spent more time playing video games showed an increase in intelligence quotient (IQ) by 2.5 points, based on their cognitive abilities, and reports of children and their parents, while no comparable effect was found for watching TV or using social media.

In terms of limitations, the findings of this research study were based on self-report for screen time, and the sample only consisted of US children.

An Intensely Debated Topic

Licensed mental health counselor Julia M. Chamberlain MS, INHC, LMHC, who specializes in child development, parenting, depression, anxiety, and the mind-body connection says, "This study is an interesting look at how gaming might impact American youth. The preliminary findings indicate that gaming may have a positive impact on intelligence."

Chamberlain explains, "It is important to note some of the specific factors such as the ages and cultures of the children may have an impact on the outcomes. Further research is needed with a variety of ages, and different cultures in order to determine the validity and reliability across domains."

This research is in line with other studies that examine how external stimuli influence brain development, but Chamberlain notes that it goes against previous notions that gaming has negative consequences on child development. "Because of mixed research findings, media usage and children is a widely and intensely debated topic," she says. 

Julia M. Chamberlain MS, INHC, LMHC

This study is an interesting look at how gaming might impact American youth. The preliminary findings indicate that gaming may have a positive impact on intelligence.

— Julia M. Chamberlain MS, INHC, LMHC

Chamberlain explains, "Gaming stimulates brain function by impacting the dopamine receptors and facilitating problem-solving and strategy within the brain. The negative impacts of gaming primarily focus on the influence of violence, desensitization of external stimuli, social deficits, and the disconnect from reality." 

Intelligence is measured in a variety of dimensions, as Chamberlain notes that many intelligence tests assess one dimension of intelligence at a time, thus giving limited information.  "Every child is truly individual and develops different types of intelligence, learns differently, and comes from a different culture and familial background making it difficult to create generalizations about the benefits of external influences," she says.

From her therapy practice, Chamberlain has noticed social deficits, an increase in depressive symptoms, including withdrawal and isolation, sleep disruption, and a decrease in motivation in young adult men who have grown up gaming. "Therefore, it will be important to continue to monitor how media impacts development beyond adolescence," she says.

Effects of Active Brain Activity

Licensed psychotherapist and program coordinator for intellectual and developmental disabilities and mental health services at Providence Saint John's Child and Family Development Center, Mayra Mendez, PhD, LMFT, says, "Video gaming may boost mental health...[as] it has the effect of enhancing mental acuity and cognitive processing."

Mendez explains, "The effect of active brain activity is generally positively associated with plasticity, flexibility, healthy endorphins and overall positive mental health, emotional functioning, and brain plasticity." 

The lack of positive cognitive growth associated with TV and social media may be linked to its passive nature, according to Mendez. "The brain is not activated to think critically, problem-solve, or generate flexible thinking; instead the brain shuts down to a passive state and is not challenged to work when engaged in passive receptivity," she says.

Mayra Mendez, PhD, LMFT

Environment plays a significant role especially the cultivation of rich, stimulating, active learning environment as key factors in cognitive growth and effective executive functioning skills.

— Mayra Mendez, PhD, LMFT

Regarding limitations of psychological tests to measure intelligence, Mendez notes limited cultural/racial/ethnic/SES relevance. "Intelligence tests are not one-size-fits-all and may generate inaccurate results because the tests are limited in cultural scope and are not standardized to capture intellectual capacity through a culturally relevant lens," she says.

Mendez explains, "The tests do not cover a global perspective of intelligence, rather the tests generate a partial representation of cognitive functioning that is highly influenced by environment, state of mind, language factors, and other interfering and confounding variables."

While genetics may impact and even predict cognitive capacity and functioning, Mendez notes that it is not a sole determinant of intellectual progress. "Environment plays a significant role especially the cultivation of rich, stimulating, active learning environment as key factors in cognitive growth and effective executive functioning skills," she says.

Multiple Types of Intelligence Noted

Founder of Creative Psychological Health Services, play therapist, and psychologist Rachel Altvater, PsyD, RPT-S, says, "This groundbreaking study shows that gaming and video watching had a positive impact on children’s intelligence. This research is promising as we begin to uncover more about the impact of the digital age on our cognitive evolution."

Altvater explains, "We do not want to take results from one study and make absolute statements. The research was comprehensive and accounted for many factors that could influence intelligence to truly attest how gaming impacted intellectual development."

Further research is needed to understand how gaming, watching digital videos, and socializing impacts intelligence, according to Altvater. "There are many critical periods of development in our early years, so what we do will impact us in different ways at different times," she says.

Rachel Altvater, PsyD, RPT-S

My clients deeply appreciate when I join them in their comfortable, familiar digital space. As a play therapist, I operate under the premise that I meet my clients where they are, and I speak their language. The modern facilitator of play is gaming platforms.

— Rachel Altvater, PsyD, RPT-S

Altvater highlights that intelligence measures focus on fluid and crystalized knowledge. "Fluid knowledge is the ability to think and reason abstractly and solve problems. Crystalized knowledge is information we have learned," she says.

Intelligence is so much more than this, according to Altvater. "There are multiple types of intelligence, so to only consider one aspect does not afford a comprehensive measure of intelligence. Traditional intelligence measures favor those who have stronger performance on fluid and crystalized tasks of intelligence," she says.

Altvater explains, "My clients deeply appreciate when I join them in their comfortable, familiar digital space. As a play therapist, I operate under the premise that I meet my clients where they are, and I speak their language. The modern facilitator of play is gaming platforms."

Harmful Stereotypes of Video Gamers

Ariel Landrum, MA, LMFT, a licensed marriage and family therapist, certified art therapist, and the clinical director of Guidance Teletherapy, says, “Screen time is a big debate amongst educators, caregivers, and professionals in the mental and medical fields."

When screen time includes video games, many arguments are based on morality and ethics, as Landrum notes that her anecdotal insights as a geek therapist who plays video games with clients matches study findings.

Landrum explains, "A video game accesses skills around problem-solving, critical thinking, and decision-making around priorities. When video games have a multiplayer component, children are...using socialization skills, active listening skills, and collaborative communication."

When watching TV or social media, Landrum notes it does not activate executive functioning or utilize emotional intelligence. "Depending on the videogame type, youth may be exposed to historical events, architecture from other countries, or food from different cultures," she says.

Ariel Landrum, MA, LMFT

Just as our society is still learning to grow away from misogynistic, homophobic, and racist structures, the same is found in gaming...Video game companies are making more diverse characters, removing gendered limits on clothing, addressing hate speech, [etc.]

— Ariel Landrum, MA, LMFT

Landrum highlights how the Entertainment Software Association (ESA) found that 87% of the video game community agrees that players are diverse and that 32% of players have children living in their homes.

This challenges the unfortunate video-game player stereotype of somehow simultaneously being an angry 13-year-old boy and a 40-year-old man living in their parent's basement, according to Landrum.

This harmful stereotyping creates the belief system that video game players are isolated, lack diversity and emotional expressiveness, and are unmotivated, and aggressive, while Landrum notes the ESA found that only 20% of gamers were under 18 while 16% of gamers were over 55.

Landrum explains, "Just as our society is still learning to grow away from misogynistic, homophobic, and racist structures, the same is found in gaming...Video game companies are making more diverse characters, removing gendered limits on clothing, addressing hate speech, [etc.]"

What This Means For You

As this research study demonstrates, video gaming may have a positive impact on the intelligence levels of children. Given the limitations of intelligence measures, educators should strive to promote accessible learning to better engage kids at all levels.

1 Source
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  1. Sauce B, Liebherr M, Judd N, Klingberg T. The impact of digital media on children’s intelligence while controlling for genetic differences in cognition and socioeconomic backgroundSci Rep. 2022;12(1):7720. doi:10.1038/s41598-022-11341-2

By Krystal Jagoo
 Krystal Kavita Jagoo is a social worker, committed to anti-oppressive practice.