Video games improve children's reaction time
Video gaming is big business. The industry turns over more money than Hollywood, and stats show that about three quarters of youngsters are regular gamers. Nevertheless, some, including parents and educators, say they're concerned about the knock-on effects of gaming on children's development. There's also an alarming rise in childhood obesity associated with low levels of physical activity in this age group. Putting this latter, albeit very important issue, to one side and considering just the cognitive side of things though, according to a study just out from Bader Charaani, at the University of Vermont, avid gaming does appear to be boosting some aspects of brain power…
Bader - As a hardcore video gamer, I was naturally interested in looking at any relationship that video game may have with mental health, behavior, or cognition. And if you look at the literature about video gaming, the majority of studies are negative outcomes such as relationships between video gaming and depression, anxiety, aggressive behavior. So I wanted to verify, because I have access to a large database called the ABCD Study. We have 2000 subjects in total, kids who never played video games and kids who played video games.
Chris - What exactly is the data you've collected? How have you collected all this and what questions are you asking?
Bader - So the ABCD study started in 2015 or 16. It collects data on 12,000 kids. We track them since they are nine and ten years old through adolescents and into young adulthood. And every two years we do a follow up assessment. The data we collected includes behavioral data, substance use data, neuroimaging data, genetic data. And the goal is just to better understand the neurodevelopment and the behavior in children and adolescents.
Chris - And included in that is history taking about use of video games presumably?
Bader - Yeah, so it also includes a large battery of questionnaires. So the video gaming questionnaire is part of a larger screen time questionnaire that asks kids how many hours they spent on consoles or playing mobile phone or any other device.
Chris - Obviously this is self-reported data, but I presume what you then did is to say, I know roughly how long these individuals are spending playing games and I've got these other metrics including behavioral data and crucially brain scans. And I can now marry up and ask are there differences in the people who have a greater exposure to computer games compared to those who have a lesser exposure?
Bader - Yeah, exactly. We compared performance when the kids performed two tasks inside the MRI scanner. These probe impulse control and working memory between video gamers and non video gamers.
Chris - And when you do that, how do the kids that are avid gamers, like you work or are, compare with the kids that never go near a computer?
Bader - So we have seen significant improvements on two tasks in terms of faster reaction time and video gamers, better performance in terms of impulse control, and also better performance in tasks involving working memory accompanied by changes in brain function and regions of the brain involved in vision, attention, problem solving and memory processing.
Chris - Do you think though that the way you would've done this in the brain scanner was to give the kids an environment to look at that's pretty similar to a computer game and therefore it's unsurprising their brain gets more activated because they're used to doing that if they play lots of computer games? Because it's almost like they're in their comfort zone compared to children who don't do that as much. Is this a real extrapolable finding to the real world, do you think?
Bader - That's a great comment and actually one of the comments by the reviewers of the paper. To address that comment, we looked at tasks performed out of the scanner that do not involve any visual stimulus. So we use task working memory tasks that are done verbally and orally like language. And we saw that video gamers still outperform non-video gamers.
Chris - And do you think you are really comparing apples with apples? Is it that children who don't play video games don't play them for a reason? They have some other reason not to, and therefore you're not really comparing children who are otherwise comparable who do and don't play computer games and that could account for why their brain activity is different?
Bader - That's a really good question. So fortunately the ABCD data set is large enough to allow us to control for a large variety of confounding variables. Sex, socioeconomic status site, geographic location. We can also control for mental health scores. So to answer your question, yeah, we are pretty confident to compare apples with apples.
Chris - Why do you think the kids are showing these brain changes? What's the gaming doing that general activity, general life riding your bike, reading a book, et cetera, can't do that a computer can?
Bader - The theory behind video gaming and better performance goes back to the theory that the brain is like a muscle. The more you train it, the better it gets. And so I think we are seeing some sort of practice effect. Hours and hours of video gaming may alter how the brain is wired and give this advantage. Just to note that the kids we're including here are heavy video gamers because all of them play three hours or more per day.