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Do video games really make children smarter?

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

Although it has clearly regressed with the evolution of this medium, there is still a prejudice today that suggests that video games are mind-numbing, especially for young children. Today, researchers are still not unanimous on the issue. Some of them believe that playing video games could even make children smarter.

This is the case of a vast study carried out on more than 5000 children by researchers from the Vrije University in Amsterdam, the University of Dusiburg-Essen in Germany and the prestigious Karolinska Instituet in Sweden, an institution which is part of the best medical universities in the world.

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

On average, these 5,000-odd children between the ages of 10 and 12 spent an average of four hours a day on these activities, two of which were on video games. A duration that represents a substantial part of the free time of a child of this age, and which continues to increase visibly. The opportunity to validate a first observation: “today, screens truly define childhood”, say the researchers.

It remains to be seen what the cognitive impact of all this time spent in front of screens is. And this is where it all gets complicated. The majority of the most serious studies indeed 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 conclusive research

A term for which there are obviously lots of distinct definitions that depend a lot on the context. Harvard researchers estimate that there are 8; this other much more generalist paper considers that there are more than 70. In the context of this study on video games, the 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 over the trials.

Note that the researchers are not the first to have devised a protocol of this type. Unfortunately, the results have often been very inconclusive. On the other hand, 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 enormous reasoning biases if they are ignored. “For example, a child born with certain genes might be more likely to watch TV, yet have completely independent learning disabilities.”, explain the researchers in their communicated.

The genetic lottery is a major player in any psychological process”, they insist. “And until now, it was difficult to integrate it into studies because of the high price of genomic analysis.”. However, this limitation has been considerably reduced in recent years. The improvement of these technologies has thus opened the door to this more advanced work. They were thus 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 link between video games and cognitive development. © Ben White – Unsplash

A very real statistical correlation…

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

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

They also spotted a remarkable difference on the big players side. Statistically, the children who passed theand more time in front of video games were also those who presented greatest cognitive progress at the end of this period. For the researchers, there therefore seems to be a mathematically demonstrable causal relationship between the practice of video games and the development of intelligence.

© Emily Wade – Unsplash

… but also undeniable limits

Can we therefore definitively conclude that video games are a medium of choice for training future little geniuses? Well it is much more complicated than that. On the one hand, it is indeed a solid study conducted on a large sample by researchers from recognized institutions competent in these matters.

But on the other hand, even though researchers have made great methodological efforts to remove a whole bunch of biases genetic and socio-economic, the study nevertheless includes considerable limits. For example, the researchers place great emphasis on the fact that their study could not take into account other potentially important psychological parameters. They mention in particular the quality of sleep, mental health or physical exerciseso many factors that could weigh heavily in the final result.

Another very important limitation of the study is that the researchers did not have the data necessary 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 impacts cognitive development compared to the practice of a racing or logic game, for example. It’s a shame, because other works (see here Where here) suggest very strongly that the effects on cognition depend directly on the type of game and its complexity.

Obviously, video games cannot replace physical activity, replace quality sleep or limit the impact 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 effectively yes. The researchers managed to confirm statistically that their practice seems to have a cognitive impact that is at worst neutral, and at best positive. Don’t worry, your child won’t become terribly stupid because of video games… it could even help to strengthen his brain.

But we must also remain aware of the nuances of this study. Letting a child play for hours is absolutely no guarantee that he will become very intelligent, far from it! If the rest of the hygiene of life is bad, and in particular in the event of addiction, the positive effect documented by the researchers can completely go by the wayside. It might even give way to a plethora of extremely severe deleterious 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 question of approach and dosage. On good terms!

The text of the study is available here.

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