Do Video Games Help or Harm Your Kids Brain?

Do video games help or harm your kids brain? It depends who you ask. I loved playing video games growing up. When I was 12 My aunt bought me a Nintendo 64 and I was over the moon. Even though I was obsessed with my new toy I still had other hobbies and interests. I enjoyed playing football, trudging through the bush behind my friends house, or rounding up the neighbourhood kids for a game of street hockey. Nowadays kids spend so much time playing video games that it’s hard for parents to tell what constitutes unhealthy use.

How is all this time on video games affecting children? We know that video games can interrupt and impair restful sleep, the foundation of mental and physical health. But is there a chance that video games could negatively affect your child’s brain? Others argue that video games can improve mental functioning. Let’s look at two studies which represent either side. 

Video Games Harm Brain Development 

One Canadian study found that for ‘response style’ players who played first person shooter (FPS) video games experienced a loss of grey matter in their hippocampus. The response style of play describes players who use a set sequence of actions to navigate their way around the game, rather than using visual landmarks. Grey matter in the brain is responsible for processing information and the hippocampus is associated with learning and memory. This implies that FPS games could have a negative effect on learning and memory. 

Video Games Help Brain Development

Another study found that when compared with people who don’t play video games professional gamers have increased grey matter in the insular cortex. The insula is a brain area associated with higher cognitive functions like empathy, compassion and the ability to focus. However it’s possible this difference was present in the professional gamers before playing video games. It’s a classic chicken or the egg problem. Did an enlarged insular region help them be better gamers, or did being a gamer increase their grey matter in the areas required for focus?

A systematic review on the evidence regarding video games suggests that there are some consistent patterns in how video games affect the brain. These findings are complex and provide no clear recommendations. There is currently no scientific consensus on what the optimal amount of video game time for children is. 

My Opinion: On Average They Harm

In my experience as a counsellor I have observed that when video game play exceeds 2 hours per day  it usually harms kids by disconnecting them from positive social interactions with family and friends in person, and interfering with restful sleep which negatively affects their mood, memory and attention. As other enjoyable activities and in person social interaction decrease more time is spent playing video games to fill the need for connection and fun. Don’t take my word for it, what have you noticed about your own kids?

No amount of scientific research and study will replace your own daily observations of how video games have affected your child. There is only one fool proof way to determine how much of an impact, whether positive or negative, video games are having on your specific child. Remove the video games for a sufficient time period, and see if you notice any positive (or negative) changes. This is similar to an elimination diet where one removes the suspected problem food and monitors their symptoms to see if it was causing them trouble. 

A Potential Solution: TRY a Screen Fast

In her book Reset Your Child’s Brain: A Four-Week Plan to End Meltdowns, Raise Grades, and Boost Social Skills by Reversing the Effects of Electronic Screen-Time psychiatrist Dr. Dunckley shares how implementing a 3 week screen fast has helped improve her clients mood, motivation and energy levels dramatically. When I discuss with parents the prospect of taking away screens for that long they are usually very uncomfortable with the idea. They know that their child won’t be happy, and aren’t sure if it’s worth the potential risk to their relationship.

I usually respond by flipping the question on it’s head. If you are suspicious that your child is being negatively affected by video games what is the risk of not finding out the extent of that harm? Until you know the gravity of the harm you can’t do a proper cost benefit analysis. If you do decide to do a fast I recommend you buy Dr. Dunckley’s book, or try out my parent program.

My PROGRAM: Tailored to Boys

I have borrowed from Dr. Dunckley’s approach and created a program for boys that not only removes screens but also helps parents better understand the unique needs of boys so that they can provide boys  the things they need to thrive. Boys love video games because they meet the three of their core needs: social connection, play and purpose. All of their friends play the same games (social), nobody can deny how fun video games are (play), and striving to win the game provides them with a challenge (purpose).

Unfortunately this reduces their motivation to meet these needs in more healthy ways. It’s like eating candy, you can survive on it for a while, but the negative consequences compound over time. If you eat candy (video games) before a meal it also spoils your appetite for healthy food (in person connection). Once the screen fast is initiated I help parents reconnect with their son’s (social) through activities and play (fun) and create rites of passage to give their son a structured pathway towards maturity (purpose). Once they start eating the wholesome food of in-person connection, hands on play, and real-world purpose the candy won’t be as intoxicating and can be reintroduced in a healthy way.

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