Brave New World: The Good and Bad Effects of Video Games on a Child’s Developing Brain

Our kids are exposed to a cornucopia of video games, but is this always bad for them?

In the late 70s and early 80s when video games started to arrive en masse on the market, naysayers claimed that kids would rot their brains. Mind you, this was the era of Pac Man, Asteroids, and Donkey Kong. A study in 1971 entitled Television and Aggression lumped video games and TV together, and may have used limited data, but social scientists did feel the indicators were still valid, that violent games could increase aggression in children1.

Fast-forward to when special effects in movies are outshined by CGI, and the distinct line between reality and make-believe blurs further. Enter the Internet and the boundaries of geographical space dissolve. Video games take a quantum leap forward and now they look incredibly real and players can interact, battle each other, or collaborate in real-time around the globe.

The gaming industry has seen a meteoric rise, with whole galas conducted on the world stage just to honor the music alone. Voiceover actors have made names for themselves from a single game franchise and now 12-year-old coders are inventing their own games. The average young person is estimated to have played about 10,000 hours by the time they are 21, and more people are continuing to play into adulthood2.

Naturally, we as parents would like to know: what is all this gaming doing to our children’s brains and behavior?

The data is in and, well, it is both good and bad. It’s undeniable with the latest technology that we are certainly changing our brains, but in some cases, that is a strength, and not a weakness. Here are some important distinctions in parsing the good from the bad when it comes to immersive technologies like gaming.

The Good News:

It really depends on the construction and objective of the game. For example, puzzle, educational, and simulation games all can improve hand-eye coordination, reduce reaction time, and make visual attention more efficient, according to the authors of a study conducted at Université de Montréal in 20152.

The Bad News:

This study also indicates that gamers rely more heavily on a part of the brain called the caudate nucleus to store and manage memories, and researchers point out that caudate-nucleus-dependent brains also see a reduction in grey matter in the hippocampus, which is the reward center. Reduced activity in the hippocampus is associated with Alzheimer’s disease. Ouch.

The Good News:

Video games can aid in developing multi-tasking abilities, says cognitive scientist Daphne Bavalier. Action games sharpen our strategizing, specifically “telescoping,” the act of dealing quickly with immediate goals while having some more long-term goals in mind3. It’s worth it to take a look at her TED Talk here:

The Bad News:

Playing games for an extended amount of time at night can really mess with sleep. The brain becomes over-stimulated at a time when it is supposed to be simmering down, and it can prohibit the production of melatonin, which is the hormone that regulates sleep. Video games can strain the eyes too, so keep to the 20 minute rule: for every 20 minutes of playing, look away for 20 seconds and focus on something far away. This will help reduce eye fatigue. Also, keep your kids’ gaming to daylight hours if you can, otherwise, bedtime can get cantankerous4.

The Good News:

Creativity also has been linked to certain kinds of games, although devising a concise metric about something as amorphous as creativity is somewhat difficult. Kids who played games versus time on social media or other computer-related activities, produced more imaginative stories and pictures in a study conducted at Michigan State University5.

The Bad News:

Violent video games do alter behavior. The evidence is conclusive that kids who play games that show explicit violence experience a decrease in empathy, especially among boys because girl plays less than boys and are less likely to play violent games. While there is no direct causal link between playing Mortal Kombat 3 and violence, studies conclude that regularly arousing the nervous system with violent games makes players more aggressive. Because we are creatures that learn by witnessing others’ behavior, it stands to reason that simulation is a very effective way to fire up our defense mechanisms6.

The experts recommend that parents not just check to make sure the ratings on games are age-appropriate for their children, but that they also screen the content of the games. And as with all things that concern our children’s health, we should explain to them the consequences of playing video games so that they themselves make wise choices and learn to self-regulate.

There are some brilliant and inspired games that utilize technology to elevate the mind, and then there are some truly extreme products out there designed for maximum shock value and addictive potential. Know the difference and make sure your kids know the difference too.






About Susie Almaneih

Susie Almaneih spent several years during her young adulthood teaching children dance at her church group, as well as other cultural-based activities. Susie now spends as much time as she can giving back to the families in her community. Over the years, this love for community has evolved into a deeper love for delivering positive and creative content and awareness to families of all ages.

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