Do video games influence childhood development

Christian Albrechts University in Kiel

Question: My child often plays on the tablet or the computer. Should we limit this because it could have negative effects on intelligence and memory?

Many parents are concerned with the question of whether playing on tablets, mobile phones and computers could harm the development of children and young people and how much play time one should allow their children to play. A multitude of different opinions are circulating in the media and literature on this topic, ranging from largely prohibit to largely allow.

What does current research say on this topic?

Andrew Przybylski, Professor at the Oxford Internet Institute, conducts research on the psychosocial effects of video games and social media. In one of his studies, he examined a representative sample of over 100,000 children and adolescents between the ages of 10 and 15 for the negative and positive effects of video games. What was special about the study was that both aspects (positive and negative) were taken into account in the same people, as several studies ignore one of the two aspects and thus only provide an incomplete picture.

Przybylski compared 4 groups with one another: 1. Non-players, 2. Moderate players (up to an hour a day), 3. Medium players (1 to 3 hours a day) and 4. Excessive players (over 3 hours a day).

It was found that excessive gamblers did indeed show poorer psychosocial adaptation. Compared to non-gamers, excessive gamblers reported lower life satisfaction, less prosocial behavior, and increased problem behavior. This involved both increased internalizing problem behavior (i.e. withdrawal, depression, fears and somatic symptoms such as abdominal pain, headache and sleep disorders) and externalizing problem behavior (i.e. hyperactivity, hostility, aggression, desensitization for risk behavior). Przybylski concluded that excessive play prevents young people from engaging in other socially enriching activities and puts them at greater risk of children and young people being exposed to inappropriate material. The group of excessive gamers over 3 hours a day showed clear negative consequences of video games.

A completely different picture emerged for the moderate players (up to an hour a day): Compared with the non-players, they even reported higher life satisfaction, more frequent prosocial behavior and less problem behavior (internalizing and externalizing). Przybylski concluded that moderate video games, like traditional games, had healing functions: opportunities for identity development as well as cognitive and social challenges.

Interestingly, there were no differences between the group of non-gamers and medium-strength players (1 to 3 hours a day), i.e. the medium-strength players neither benefited from the positive consequences of video games, nor did they show the same degree of negative consequences.

In 2017, Przybylski and his colleague Weinstein followed up on this research with a new study. The question was: How are the psychological well-being of children and adolescents and playing time related? Here, too, it was shown that the well-being of players compared to non-players initially increased and reached its peak with a game duration of approx. 1 to a maximum of 2 hours and decreased with further playing time.

So video games can have positive effects as long as they do not take up an inordinate amount of free time for children and young people, leaving enough time for other enriching social and academic activities.

What are the cognitive effects of video games?

The cognitive effects are also the subject of controversial discussions, in which very different points of view are represented, which in turn range from extremely negative to extremely positive consequences.

In a so-called meta-analysis, Kasey Powers from the City University of New York and her colleagues analyzed the results of 118 individual studies on the effects of video games on information processing.

When comparing non-gamers with regular gamers, the overall positive effects of video games on information processing skills were found. However, the devil is in the details:

So the type of game has an influence on the training effects. Memory games had the greatest positive influence on information processing. In contrast, no or only minor effects were found for action, puzzle and non-specific games.

In addition, the effects are very specific. To put it somewhat simply, a game trains a very specific skill, such as visual processing. A transfer to other areas or a general increase in intelligence could not be found here.

So if a player plays the same game over a longer period of time, he trains the same skill over and over again. Powers was able to show, however, that after about 10 hours of play, the players have acquired most of the cognitive processes that are required for a game and that further practice hardly improves them.

Overall, Powers and her colleagues conclude that video games can have positive effects, but that these are very specific. These authors also emphasize that, above all, sufficient time should be left for other social and academic activities.

What role does the age of the children and adolescents play?

Unfortunately, to the best of our knowledge, there are so far few reliable studies that deal with the consequences of video games and social media in children of different ages. Radesky, Schumacher and Zuckerman (2014) give some recommendations on how young children should use tablets and smartphones. Like the scientists cited above, they emphasize that what matters most is how and to what extent children use computers.

It is important that parents do not routinely use tablets and smartphones to rest their young children, for example when they go to restaurants. Such measures would have a negative effect on the self-regulatory skills of children, who would become accustomed to not having to overcome boredom and negative emotions themselves, but instead being distracted by technology. Self-regulation, empathy, social skills and problem solving are primarily learned through exploring the natural environment, which includes interaction with peers and caregivers and unstructured, creative play. Due to the ubiquity of smartphones and tablets, which set in early in children's lives, care should be taken that engaging with them does not replace other activities that are important for their development. For example, sensorimotor activities such as climbing, building or working on objects would train visual-motor skills, which would be beneficial for later success in the natural sciences and mathematics, for example.

Overall, Radesky, Schumacher and Zuckerman (2014) emphasize that the context has a decisive influence on the effects of the use of iPads and smartphones on young children. As a recommendation for parents, they say that parents should use iPads and smartphones together with their young children in order to better exploit the existing potential of the devices and apps to support learning by embedding them in a context of interaction and mutual reflection.

All in all, based on the current state of science, parents can be advised of the following:

Video games, smartphones, tablets, etc. can be used by children and adolescents for around 1 hour a day, since, according to current knowledge, moderate gaming has positive consequences for psychosocial development. Younger children in particular should not be able to play alone, but should be able to talk to their parents about the games. It is important that parents talk to their children of all ages about the content of the games, but above all with whom they are played. Who do your children have contact with through the online games? If the learning effect is to be in the foreground, it might make sense to change the games more often and to play different types of games. It applies to all age groups that there is enough time for other social and academic activities; this seems to be the case especially if the game lasts up to an hour.

© Müller & Nagy