Boomer Humor Was Wrong: Video Games Might Make Kids Smarter

“TV will rot your brain!” We’ve all heard that old canard. The idea that screen time makes kids dumber is a staple of the “Father, I cannot click the book” genre of boomer humor. But science is turning that narrative on its head. A newly published report using data from an ABCD Study indicates that screen time doesn’t rot kids’ brains after all. On the contrary: video games might actually make kids smarter.

The ABCD Study

The Adolescent Brain and Cognitive Development (ABCD) study is a gigantic longitudinal study of American child health and brain development.

The ABCD study timeline.

Participants begin at 9-10 years of age. Through its massive slate of tests and surveys, the project records a wide array of behavioral, biometric, and genetic information from participants and their parents. Then, project scientists follow up with participant families until the kids are 19-20 years old.

Data from the project is freely available for other researchers to use in their own studies. Once or twice a year, the ABCD Study releases another updated dataset. Now, researchers from Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam and the Karolinska Institutet of Sweden have used that data to find out what video gaming really does to childrens’ brains.

Video Games Can Make Kids Smarter

“For our study,” two of the new study’s authors explain in a joint statement, “we were specifically interested in the effect of screen time on intelligence – the ability to learn effectively, think rationally, understand complex ideas, and adapt to new situations.”

In particular, their model looked at how much time kids spent staring at glowing rectangles, and even how they used their screen time. For example, most of the kids in the study used their screen time in three different ways: watching videos (e.g. YouTube), socializing online, or playing video games. It compared gamers and non-gamers on tasks including reading comprehension, memory, visual-spatial processing, and executive function.

The researchers wanted to cover a wide variety of subdomains of intelligence. “However, intelligence is highly heritable in the populations we’ve studied so far,” study author Dr. Bruno Sauce explained to us over Zoom. Furthermore, “genetic and socioeconomic factors were our two major confounders.” So, to account for variations in these factors, the researchers rolled in genetic data and socioeconomic information from the participants’ parents.

After two years, results showed that screen time had no negative effect on cognitive skills. On the contrary: kids who had stuck with gaming showed a subtle but persistent improvement in their IQ.

Play is Practice

“Our results support the claim that screen time generally doesn’t impair children’s cognitive abilities,” said study coauthor Torkel Klingberg, from the Karolinska Institute in Sweden. Instead, “playing video games can actually help boost intelligence.”

Listen, I could have told you that. The ideas of spell slots, mana regen, and cooldown timers all contributed to my emotional literacy. Bullet hell games improved my reaction times and made me better at dodging skillshots. Learning to play different types of games — League of Legends, Oxygen Not Included, Satisfactory, Foundation — taught me a lot about learning the rules in any given system. And let me tell you something, League made me a lot more chill about losing, and better at taking criticism.

Image from the study. Original caption: Density plot of time spent Gaming (raw values) between boys and girls at ages 9–10.

Here’s the thing. Play is practice. For example: Learning to ride a bike improves your dexterity and timing. So does learning to play Super Mario Bros. You’re literally improving your DEX stat in real life. That skill then makes it easier to learn in other situations that require coordination, balance, and strength. Likewise, team sports encourage cooperation and build conflict resolution skills. First-person shooters and racing games can even improve a person’s reflexes. The effect is the same for boys and girls. Popular Mechanics reports that in tests, “participants playing a first-person shooting game were up to 50 percent better at identifying, locating, and tracking objects—skills that are also critical in real race driving—than nongamers.”

Games Can Rewire the Brain — For the Better

Even Geico agrees that skill-building driving games can make teens better drivers. However, not all games have the same beneficial influence. Treat the world like it’s GTA:V, and we become more inclined to break the law. Driving games help when they’re designed to build driving skills.

That’s how video games can make kids smarter in real life. Games use practice to build skills, and building intelligence requires a wide variety of skills. It’s all about learning. “Higher intelligence seems to mean you learn faster,” explained Dr. Sauce. “And higher intelligence in a given subdomain tends to correlate with higher intelligence in other subdomains.”

“The story may be more complicated,” Dr. Sauce told us. “There’s a lot we still don’t know about the plasticity of intelligence. But it matches parallel findings we’ve seen about deliberate practice.”

Through practice over time, these skills enmesh themselves into the brain. In addition to improving dexterity, games that build real-life skills can also buff your real-life INT stat. In short, the right games can rewire the brain, for the better.

Then Why Did Brain Training Games Flop?

Do you remember when brain training games were new? They promised everything from increased IQ to protection against Alzheimer’s disease. There was some science to back up the claims. For one thing, there’s a correlation between cognitive performance and overall brain health. It’s also true that testing out skills as we learn seems to result in better learning outcomes than simply re-reading. Furthermore, people with higher IQ scores often score higher in other tests of cognitive skills. But brain games have largely failed to deliver on their loftier promises.

One reason is that there’s simply more to brain health than memory recall, executive function, or any other single thing. It turns out getting good at sudoku isn’t the same thing as protecting the brain against aging-related diseases. Data from other studies suggest that staying active and engaged — using your mind and body — is highly important to overall brain health.

Crossword puzzles and brain training games can’t fix genetic diseases. But they do train cognitive skills. “It seems that cognitive training does have some benefits,” Dr. Sauce told us, “but those benefits are much narrower in scope than the hype cycle originally suggested. I think that romantic era is gone, and we’re much more skeptical about that — at least, I am.”

Instead, the rollerblading grannies might just have the right idea. To get sharp and stay healthy, it’s important to have fun and learn new things throughout life. It’s official. Science says: go play!

The research is published in Nature Scientific Reports. We’d like to thank Dr. Bruno Sauce, who graciously allowed us to pepper him with questions. Feature image by RebeccaPollard, CC BY SA 2.0.

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