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video games and mental health
In this Wednesday, June 19, 2013 photo, instructor Melissa Andrews, left, cheers on camper Roger McKee, 9, for finishing a video game while at an iD Tech Camp at the Emory University campus, in Atlanta. Credit: AP Photo/Jaime Henry-White

This is the kind of research every kid trying to convince his parents to let him play video games dreams about: “Time spent playing video games may have positive effects on young children.” That was the headline on a March 2016 press release from Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health, promoting a new study co-authored by three members of its faculty.

I looked at the study, published in the journal Social Psychiatry and Psychiatric Epidemiologyand while it runs counter to parental common sense, it’s not bonkers. Its team of 13 researchers analyzed the video game-playing habits of more than 3,000 children, aged 6 to 11, across Europe back in 2010. They found that children who played at least five hours a week had fewer psychological problems than students who didn’t play video games as much, and were rated by their teachers as better students, both academically and in social adjustment. After controlling for the fact that certain types of kids were more likely to play more hours of video games, such as older children, boys, and children from two-parent, well-educated families, the researchers found no association between video game playing and mental health problems. (Before the adjustment, the raw data showed that the kids who played more, were psychologically healthier.)

“I think what we’re seeing here is the evolution of gaming in modern society. Video games are now a part of a normal childhood,” said Katherine Keyes, one of the 13 authors and a professor of epidemiology at Columbia. “It’s no longer that kids who play a lot video games are the isolated, techy, brainy kids. What we’re seeing here is that kids who play a lot of video games are socially integrated, they’re prosocial, they have good school functioning and we don’t see any association with adverse mental health outcomes.”

“It’s the kids who don’t actively engage with their peers around gaming and other types of popular children’s leisure activities that are perhaps more at risk for developing problems,” Keyes added.

Keyes says there’s never been much scientific evidence among large studies of children to support that video game-playing is harmful. Researchers have even struggled to find a connection between playing violent video games and actual violent behavior. Yet she sympathizes with parents’ fears that too much video game-playing might be isolating, or might diminish a child’s ability to focus without constant visual and audio stimulation. Getting a lot of publicity right now is concern from MIT sociologist and psychologist, Sherry Turkle, who worries that all our technology is making us less empathetic and less able to interact with one another.

Indeed, fears that video gaming might be psychologically damaging a new generation are what prompted the researchers to study the matter. They went to six different countries across Eastern and Western Europe (Germany, Netherlands, Lithuania, Bulgaria, Romania and Turkey) and asked thousands of children to take a computerized psychological assessment, and had their parents and teachers fill out surveys about them. Then they compared the results with the children’s video game-playing habits.

The hardest part was keeping track of exactly how many hours kids were actually playing video games. In this case, they researchers relied on how many hours parents said their kids play, on average, each week. To be sure, parents might be terribly unaware of exactly how many hours their kids are playing computer games at a friend’s house, or embarrassed to admit how many hours they allow. I was shocked to read that fewer than 10 percent of parents in Western Europe said their kids play five or more hours of video games a week. That amounts to only 43 minutes a day.

Other critics have pointed out that it’s important to know which games kids are playing. Grand Theft Auto could have pernicious effects in a young child that online chess doesn’t. But the researchers were unable to track exactly which games kids were playing. Considering the young age of the children studied, there probably wasn’t a lot of violent gaming content.

Keyes still worries that there are downsides to video game-playing. “I want to be sure that we’re not suggesting in this study that parents should let kids play unlimited video games because it’s good for their mental health,” she said. “That’s not what we’re saying.”

It seems likely that at some point, video game-playing does become harmful.  Keyes didn’t have enough kids who were playing 10 or 20 hours or more a week in her dataset to make any scholarly conclusions. This kind of high-volume playing will require further study.

A mom herself, Keyes doesn’t think that video games are so enlightening that they’re producing academic or psychological benefits. And she supports the American Academy of Pediatrics’  recommendation for parents to monitor and limit screen time. As for her own grade-school-age son, she allows him 20 minutes a day of screen time. “After homework,” she clarified.

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