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Many people like to argue about whether video games cause violence, but what about evidence for the positive effects games might have? The research is out there, so what do we think about it?

Related HCT episodes:
Video Games Don't Make You Violent: https://youtu.be/m2Jq7vPxYGg

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We've covered some controversial topics in our time, and one that really gets people into rage mode is video games. Namely, lots of people believe that video games are just bad for kids, that they cause things like violent behavior.

The data do not clearly support this, which we've done a whole video about, but a different kind of headline recently caught our eye. That's the topic of this week's healthcare triage.

[Music]

Recently, CNN Health published a story about video games and kids, but this time it was positive. It highlighted a study concluding that kids who play video games for three or more hours a day may experience cognitive benefits and have better impulse control.

We knew we had to check this out, so, to the research!

The study, published in JAMA Network Open, used data from the Adolescent Brain Cognitive Development (or ABCD) study, the longest-term, largest study of child brain development and health in the United States.

From this study, the current researchers analyzed self-reported screen time from over 2,200 children aged 9 and 10 that specifically asked them how much time they spent playing video games.

From this, two groups were created: children who reported never playing video games and children who played 3 or more hours per day. This cutoff was chosen because it exceeds the American Academy of Pediatrics recommendation for daily time spent playing video games.

Then they analyzed brain imaging and behavioral data from each of these children as they completed tasks related to impulse control and working memory. Mental health measurements were also taken, with no significant differences reported between groups.

The results? Children who played 3 or more hours of video games per day performed better on both tasks compared with children who reported never playing video games.

Looking at the brain imaging data, different signals, either bolder or weaker activation, were found in several brain areas, including stronger signals in an area associated with things like attention, reactiveness to cues, memory, and integration of information.

It's important to note that the kind of video games being played was not examined. There are so many types of video games that differ on aspects like visuals and/or the level of interaction required, all of which surely influence potential effects, good or bad.

For example, a 2017 meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials found that video games requiring physical activity, or exer-games, did significantly improve cognitive function.

We also have to note, as always, our skepticism of self-reported data. It's hard to verify. People's memories aren't very reliable. There are several studies, like the one I just mentioned, that support positive cognitive effects of video games.

However, as the authors point out, other studies have shown opposite results. So what's the real answer in all of this? It's hard to say.

For one, it's hard to directly compare all these studies because they differ significantly in participants, games, tasks, and methods. More importantly, the majority of them have weaknesses that are hard to overlook.

For example, a 2011 review of gaming studies mentions differential expectations. If you recruit people because of their gaming experience, and they know that, they likely expect that they will perform well on any related task you give them.

Believing you should do well on a task can affect how well you actually do, even on pretty basic tasks. Therefore, not concealing the fact that you were recruiting for gaming experience is a pitfall.

The data for the current study come from another source, the ABCD study, so it isn't clear how much of an issue it is here, but the participants were specifically asked about gaming and the methods don't mention whether effort was made to separate this from the tasks that they were later performed.

Also, this study-- like many gaming studies-- is a cross-sectional study, meaning it can tell about a relationship that exists, but can't tell us very much about that relationship.

For example, the different brain activity between groups could have existed before the participants started playing video games. Maybe this brain activity and related behaviors are responsible for their gaming habits and skills, rather than the other way around.

So, unfortunately, I don't have a clear answer for you. All I can do is offer my usual refrain: The stories about the study don't tell the whole story.

Hey you enjoyed this episode? You might enjoy this previous oldie but goodie on how video games don't cause violent behavior.

We'd also like it if you'd like and subscribe to the channel down below, and considered going to patreon.com/healthcaretriage where you can help support the show, make it bigger and better.

We'd like to especially thank our Research Associates: Joe Sevits, Edward Liljeholm, and Brian Nam, and of course, our Surgeon Admiral Sam.