Do video games really make kids smarter?

A team of researchers from prestigious institutions has conducted a large-scale study on the link between video games and children’s intelligence. And the results may surprise some, though we need to be careful with the interpretation.

Although the development of this medium has clearly declined, there is still a prejudice today that suggests that video games are insane, especially for young children. Today, researchers still do not agree on the issue. Some of them believe that playing video games could even make children smarter.

This is the case with a comprehensive study conducted on more than 5000 children by researchers from the Vrije Universiteit in Amsterdam, the University of Dusiburg-Essen in Germany and the prestigious Karolinska Institute in Sweden, an institution that is part of the best medical universities in the world .

They started by asking the kids how much time they spend in front of social networks, television or video games each day. And the first observation is without appeal. As one might expect, today’s children are consuming lots of digital content!

On average, these 5,000 children between the ages of 10 and 12 spent an average of four hours a day on these activities, two of whom were on video games. A duration that represents a significant portion of the leisure time of a child at this age and that continues to increase visibly. Possibility to validate an initial observation: “today, screens really define childhood”Say the researchers.

It remains to be seen what the cognitive effect of all this time in front of screens is. And this is where it all gets complicated. In fact, most of the most serious studies suggest that it results in a mixture of positive and potentially negative effects. It is therefore necessary to define criteria; in this study, the researchers specifically targeted the effects on intelligence.

Rarely crucial research

A concept for which there are obviously lots of distinct definitions, which depends a lot on the context. Harvard researchers estimate that there are 8; this second much more general article considers that there are more than 70. In the context of this study on video games, researchers defined it as “the ability to learn effectively, think rationally, understand complex ideas and adapt to new situations”.

To compare the results of their young guinea pigs, it was also necessary to find a score. To do this, they measured their performance in five cognitive tasks that they believe are directly representative of intelligence.

Two of these tasks were based on reading comprehension and vocabulary. One focused on attention and “executive functions,” which include short-term memory or self-control. The last two tested their ability to locate themselves in space and learn a task through the experiments.

Note that researchers are not the first to devise a protocol of this type. Unfortunately, the results have often been very uncertain. In turn, they are the very first to have integrated both genetic and socio-economic factors on a large scale in a study of this kind; an approach that seems much more relevant and therefore promising.

However, these are extremely important elements because they can introduce huge reasoning disturbances if ignored. “For example, a child born with certain genes may be more likely to watch television but still have completely independent learning difficulties.“, The researchers explain in their press release.

The genetic lottery is an important player in any psychological process, ”They insist. “And until now, it was difficult to integrate it into studies due to the high cost of genomic analysis.”. However, this limitation has been significantly reduced in recent years. The improvement of these technologies has thus opened the door to this more advanced work. Thus, they were able to adjust their sample so that it was representative of the American population in terms of gender, ethnicity, and socioeconomic status.

This work shows that there is a statistical correlation between video games and cognitive development. © Ben White – Unsplash

A very real statistical connection …

And the results may surprise some. First, they found that the intelligence score of children who spent the most time in front of television and social networks was generally below average. On the other hand, they did not find a significant difference between 10-year-olds who regularly played video games and those who did not.

And the picture is still markedly different after two years of follow-up. First, the researchers found that the above-mentioned TV and social media followers were no less intelligent than the others beyond this period. This suggests that even though the hours spent in front of Instagram and the like did not make them wiser, it did not make them statistically dumber either.

They also saw a remarkable difference on the part of the big players. Statistically, they are the children who passedand more time in front of video games were also the ones who presented greatest cognitive progress at the end of this period. For the researchers, therefore, there seems to be one mathematically demonstrable causation between the practice of video games and the development of intelligence.

© Emily Wade – Unsplash

… But also indisputable limits

Can we therefore finally conclude that video games are an optional medium for training future little geniuses? Good it is much more complicated than that. On the one hand, it is in fact a solid study conducted on a large sample of researchers from recognized institutions who are competent in these matters.

But on the other hand, even though scientists have made great methodological efforts to eliminate a whole lot of imbalances genetic and socioeconomic, the study nevertheless includes significant limitations. For example, researchers place great emphasis on the fact that their study could not take into account other potentially important psychological parameters. They mention in particular sleep quality, mental health or physical exerciseso many factors that could weigh heavily in the end result.

Another very important limitation of the study is that the researchers did not have the necessary data to make the distinction between different programs, different social platforms or different types of video games. This work therefore does not explain how the practice of a game like Fortnite affects cognitive development compared to the practice of a racing or logic game, for example. It’s a shame, because other work (see here or here) suggests very strongly that the effects on cognition depend directly on the type of game and its complexity.

Clearly, video games cannot replace physical activity, replace quality sleep, or limit the effects of poor diet. © Chris Benson – Unsplash

Strong conclusions, but beware of interpretation

So in the end, do video games make kids smarter? Based on this data, the answer is actually yes. The researchers were able to confirm statistically that their practice appears to have a cognitive effect that is neutral at best and positive at best. Don’t worry, your child will not get violently stupid because of video games … it may even help strengthen his brain.

But we must also be aware of the nuances of this study. Letting a child play for hours is absolutely no guarantee that it will become very intelligent, far from it! If the rest of life’s hygiene is poor, and in particular in the case of addiction, the positive effect that the researchers have documented can go completely out of the way. It can even make room for a host of extremely serious harmful effects.

While waiting for new studies of this type to complete these already very interesting results, the conclusion is therefore as follows: everything is therefore a matter of approach and dosage. On good terms!

The text of the study is available here.

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