Video games may promote better mental health in children

Video games are usually referred to as excessively violent, antisocial and bad for children’s mental de- velopment. Given this perception, it may come as a surprise to many that video games can actually have a positive effect on children. A study conducted by researchers from Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health and Paris Descartes University examined the relationship between video game use by children ages 6 to 12 and their mental health and cognitive and social skills.

After the data was adjusted for several factors, including the child’s age and gender, analysis showed that high video game usage—defined as playing more than five hours per week—was associated with 1.75 times the odds of high intellectual functioning, as well as 1.88 times the odds of high overall school competence. The research also found that high video game usage was associated with both a lower number of peer relationship problems and a lower amount of prosocial deficits.

The data was collected from School Children Mental Health in Europe project that was carried out in six different European Union countries. The study used a sample of 3,195 kids. Each child’s mental health was assessed by parents and a teacher using the Strengths and Difficulties Questionnaire, a widely used standardized worksheet for assessing child mental health.

Children in the data pool also used an interactive self-assessment tool designed to measure their own mental health.

It was found that roughly 20 percent of the children in the sample played video games for more than five hours per week, putting one in every five children in the high video game usage category. Factors associated with general video game use included being a male, being in the upper part of the age group and belonging to a medium-sized family. Details about a child’s mother were also correlated with video game use. A less educated, single, inactive or psychologically distressed mother decreased the likelihood of high usage.

Analysis of the data sample showed that there was a positive association between high usage and competencies in spelling, mathematics and reading. After data was adjusted for factors such as age, gender, education, psychological distress and European region, elevated intellectual functioning and overall competence were associated with high usage. These benefits were correlated with moderate usage as well, but to a lesser degree.

In univariate analysis, which is the simplest way to analyze data, higher usage was associated with fewer self-reported internalizing disorders and fewer reports of thoughts of death. However, when researchers adjusted for a handful of other factors, these differences lacked statistical significance.

Children who had both a mother and a teacher report them as having problems with peer relations were less likely to be in the high usage group. Pro-social deficits were found to be less severe among children with moderate video game usage.

According to authors of the study, the data examined in their research and their results are in line with several different studies.

Researchers referenced the 2014 literature review, “The Benefits of Playing Video Games,” that claimed there are many “social benefits of gaming.” The authors of that 2014 paper conclude that playing video games became a highly social pastime.

This is true to a large extent. Children play video games with friends and often use it as a social tool. In recent years, games have become more social than ever, with most games having some sort of online option where players can join other people to form a team. Violent and nonviolent games alike showed equal indicators of these prosocial tendencies and social involvement.

According to the 2014 review, there are also strong cognitive benefits for young children who play video games, with children developing problem-solving skills and creative thought patterns.

“An important future direction of this work is to determine whether there are differential associations between video game playing and childhood health outcomes depending on the content of the game; for example, whether violent content specifically vs more complex cognitive problems solving tasks differently predict health outcomes,” the study states.

The study concludes by claiming that video game usage is not associated with an increased risk of mental health problems. Rather, video games provide a protective factor, especially among peer relationships.

“Longitudinal studies are needed to monitor mental health, cognitive and social functioning through adolescence and into early adulthood to ensure that the positive effects observed in children are maintained later in life,” the authors noted.