Video Games OK in Moderation, If You Know When to Hit ‘Pause’

September 23, 2016 6:00 AM

A new study suggests a limited amount of gaming could provide benefits to a child’s brain. But excessive screen time can trigger serious problems, a U-M expert says.

A young boy playing video games

How’s this for a power boost: A moderate amount of video gaming can offer cognitive benefits for children, according to a Spanish study released in August.

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Kids who played two hours or less per week were found to have faster and more consistent responses to visual cues than those who didn’t play at all, or whose play exceeded this amount, the study found.

The study, led by the Hospital del Mar in Barcelona, examined data on 2,442 children and their parentally reported video game habits. A year after the initial assessment, researchers analyzed MRI scans for 260 of the children and observed functional brain differences in their basal ganglia — the part of the brain associated with voluntary movement — unseen in nongamers.

But researchers found pitfalls to gaming, too. In those who played nine hours or more a week, behavior or conduct problems were more likely to occur.

The results are interesting but narrowly focused, says Jenny Radesky, M.D., a child behavior expert and pediatrician at University of Michigan C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital.

For starters, only 2 percent of those surveyed reported playing shooting games, a stark contrast to mainstream preferences in the United States. (“I’ve seen 5-year-olds play ‘Grand Theft Auto’ because their older brothers and cousins do,” notes Radesky.)

The study population also omitted young people who played more than 18 hours weekly, so the added effects of prolonged exposure aren’t clear.

And, because of insufficient background data on the study’s 428 youths identifying as nongamers, their abstinence couldn’t clearly explain the cognitive differences shown on the MRIs. 

“Perhaps they were different from nongamers in other important ways; for example, maybe children with strong visual-motor skills prefer video gaming, while those with weak visual-motor skills avoid it or prefer other activities,” Radesky says, noting: “I think it’s important for American parents not to jump to conclusions.”

Still, Radesky, who is helping the American Academy of Pediatrics revise its media use guidelines set to be released in October, says the topic is an important one.

With appropriate boundaries and supervision, video gaming can relieve post-school stress and possibly sharpen computer-based visual-motor skills (though it’s unclear if these carry over into nondigital visual-motor skills). When enjoyed in a shared setting, video games can offer a social outlet.

“It’s a way to have fun together and connect with each other,” Radesky says.

To maximize the perks and avoid pitfalls, she offered some suggestions for families.

5 ways to healthfully play video games

Set limits: The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends no more than two hours per day of screen-based entertainment. Parents should create a “media plan” that dictates what hours a child can enjoy video games without affecting behavior and homework. Radesky advises that gaming systems be kept out of bedrooms, have a digital curfew, and be put away while at the dinner table.

SEE ALSO: How and Why to Set Effective Limits for Your Kids

Keep tabs: Although researchers remain divided over whether violent games provoke real-life violence, it’s crucial to monitor what a child is playing. Notes Radesky: “You say, ‘If you’re going to game, I want to see what you’re doing, and I want to have fun with you and talk about what you’re seeing in these games so you can understand and process it.’”

Look for trouble: Many of Radesky’s own patients report playing video games four to eight hours daily. That, she says, is often tied to much larger problems. The excessive solo and sedentary behavior can hinder sleep, academic performance, interpersonal skills and healthy weight. If such issues arise, it’s time to scale back or pull the plug. Or ask a pediatric provider for help.

Play together: OK, maybe mom and dad aren’t gaming wizards. But even time in front of a television offers a chance to bond. Radesky, also an assistant professor of pediatrics at U-M, has studied the benefits of engaging in technology with children and makes sure that screen time in her own home is a family affair. Another way to socialize: Invite a child’s friends over to join in.

Offer alternatives: Video games are designed to hook players by “giving you coins or a new weapon or something else that feels like a little reward,” Radesky says. So when (or before) a time limit is met, she suggests helping kids find other activities that could offer a similar sense of mastery — a computer coding camp, group sports or music lessons.