The Positive and Negative Effects of Video Games on Children

Parents may often wonder several things pertaining to allowing their children to play video games. Not simply the effects of certain kinds of video games, but whether or not video games as a whole, even educational games, are really so positive. And how young is “too young” for gadgets, anyway? Shouldn’t children be outside, playing hopscotch and riding bicycles in the sun?

In this article, we will discuss not only the positives and negatives of video games effects on cognitive development, but scenarios where it may not be so black and white. The most important topics we’ll touch on are:

  • At what age should children be introduced to video games?
  • What positive effects of video games have been proven through study?
  • How can parents bond with their children through video games?
  • What are the negative effects of video games proven through study?
  • What are some top-rated games that offer benefits to your child?

One thing to remember is that no two children are the same – anecdotally speaking, I had a Super Nintendo as early as 5 years old. I also discovered the dictionary around this age, and spent many hours reading books of my own free will. I spent an equal amount of time between video games, reading books, and playing outside, on my own, so my mother never needed to “limit” or monitor my game time.

“No two kids are the same, I had a Super Nintendo as early as 5 years old.”

This isn’t an opinion piece, I just want to put my opinion out there before we dive into all the research and studies I’m able to gather – I think, if a child becomes addicted to gadgets, it may simply be due to a lack of alternatives that capture their interests. For me, it was books – I had a Super Nintendo and Sony PlayStation growing up, but absolutely loved reading books. For your child, it could be painting, or playing an instrument, or any other number of activities that a child may take interest in once exposed to them. As parents, I think it’s our role (and yes, I have two children of my own) to not simply tell them “you should be outside instead of playing video games”, but to try and expose them to alternative hobbies so they can make the transition themselves.

Enough about my personal opinion – let’s see what the studies have to say about whether or not video games are good for children, from all angles and considerations.

How Young is Too Young?

We’ve all seen “mommy posts” on Facebook, sharing how their 1-year-old already knows how to slide the cellphone screen open. It’s both amazing and horrifying, that this little person can’t walk yet, but remembers how to manipulate gadgets. It’s mimicry behavior, really – which is a good reason to consider how often we use our devices around our children in the first place. My almost-2-year-old daughter learned quite early to grin and make funny faces for selfies, to the point I was worried she would grow up to be a Selfie Queen. My 6-month-old son, on the other hand, still thinks the cellphone is for his mouth, not his hands.

Because there are so many educational games and apps for children today, many parents are comfortable giving their children free, unlimited access to smartphones and tablets.

Child with smartphone

A study by the Singapore NIE (National Institute of Education) had researchers visit the homes of 60 children in the pre-school age range, to observe their device usage habits. What they discovered was:

  • 65% of the children learned how to use gadgets before the age of three.
  • 95% of the children played video games, with half of them playing educational games.
  • Only 30% of the parents had any limitations on device usage time for their children.
  • 85% of the parents felt their children benefited from gadget use, saying their children were more “IT-savvy”.

That final point is what requires strong consideration – many parents feel that, because we are living in a high-tech world, children should be exposed as early as possible to tech gadgets, to give them a head-start. The idea certainly has its merits; on the other hand, what the researchers noted, however, was that it tends to lead to situations like this (click to see youtube video):

(Baby crying for cellphone)

So one the one hand, we want our children to be smarter and transition easily into the modern world – on the other hand, children have virtually no self-control, and cannot really monitor their own gadget time. And then we get into the problem of gadget addiction, because smartphones offer instant gratification.

So to answer the main question here, it really depends on the emotional maturity of your child. Expert opinions vary on this topic – some say wait until your child is over 7 years old, others say there’s no such thing as “too young”, it just boils down to parental monitoring. If you don’t want your child to become addicted to gadgets, don’t allow them unlimited access to gadgets, but also offer them plenty of alternative activities so they don’t feel dependent on gadgets for their fun.

“ 65% of the children learned how to use gadgets before the age of three”

What are the positive benefits of video games on children?

There’s a wide range of positive benefits that video games can offer children, which I’ll make a list of. Some are obvious, some not so. I want to throw something out there, however – we need to consider how the “skills” acquired from video games may actually transition into real life. For example, I am super stoked that my daughter can “paint” on my phone, using her imagination to fill in the colors on children’s painting apps.

I suffer no pretense, however, that this means she knows how to hold an actual paint brush, or stay inside the lines with a real crayon. A child may learn how to play “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” on a virtual piano, and have no clue what to do with a real piano. The hand placement and muscle coordination is completely different. I think the skills acquired from video game simulations need to be complemented with the real thing, for the benefits to really matter. Just something to consider.

But again, enough of my personal observations – let’s see what the studies have to say about the benefits of video games to child development.

Logic and problem solving – This is one of the most obvious benefits, or at least the most often cited. Puzzle games require concentration and creativity to solve, and thus expand your child’s capacity for working through problems. There’s absolutely no difference in playing Chess on a board or on a computer screen, as far as developing logic skills.

Hand-Eye Coordination and Motor Skills – Again, another obvious. There’s a reason that certain professions, like plane pilots and brain surgeons, are benefitting from computer-based training simulations. Of course, we’re talking about very realistic, advanced simulations, not “Tap the Keyboard!” on an iPhone. Still, video games do enhance motor skills and spatial awareness. Research conducted by the University of California showed that children who possessed low spatial skills benefitted significantly from video game practice.

Video games can encourage perseverance – Something not so obvious to think about is the fact that video games can teach children about not giving up or quitting. A child may need to attempt to solve a level several times before succeeding. This can teach them about initial failure and the joy of success. I think this is a concept that needs to be reinforced by the parent, however, or else the child may not grasp the lesson entirely by themselves.

Hippocampal-Associated Memory – The hippocampal is a part of the brain that plays a major role in memory – more specifically, memory for facts, places, stimuli, etc. Researchers from the University of California discovered that complex video games positively stimulate and benefit hippocampal-associated memory. The emphasis here is on “complex” video games, in a 3D environment with many controls / buttons – simple, 2D based games, such as Angry Birds, did not show the same benefits.

Faster Decision Making – A study from the University of Rochester discovered that players of action-based games can make decisions up to 25% faster than non-gamers, with no loss in accuracy. Basically, the brain is constantly processing information and weighing probabilities on how to react in a situation – the average person can make up to 4 decisions per second, whereas someone who regularly plays fast, action-based games can make up to 6 decisions per second. In visual and auditory based tests, the gamers answered questions correctly at a 25% faster rate than their non-gamer peers.

Physical exertion and exercise – This is largely dependent on a certain kind of games category – games that depend on motion-detection. Devices like the Xbox 360 Kinect utilize motion-tracking technology, which means your child participates in the video game using their entire body. A study from the University of Tennessee at Knoxville showed that children actually obtained more exercise from these types of video games, than they did from playing in a jungle gym outside.

Improved Eyesight – Never would’ve guessed this, would you? Yes, the old myth that being glued to a television screen, or sitting too close to a screen, may somehow hurt a child’s eyesight is simply that – a myth. It comes from the 1960s, when General Electric sold a color TV that emitted harmful amounts of radiation – and almost immediately recalled every unit. Almost 40 years later, and somehow this myth still persists. The opposite is actually true, in fact. Researchers from McMaster University found that playing video games improved eyesight in test subject, giving them enhanced ability to track movement, light patterns, and small details.

Better Parental Bonding – One larger benefit of video games for children is if you can actually sit down and play with them. Many parents may take a passive interest in their children’s video games, to monitor if the games are age-appropriate, but you can really do some quality bonding if you pick up a controller and sit next to them. Have no idea how to play the game? Let your child explain it to you. A study by the Arizona State University pointed out the numerous benefits to gaming with your children, and mentioned that “parents are missing out on a huge opportunity by walking away from video games”.

Video games promote social behavior – We’re living in an age where kids can play online games with hundreds of others online. Of course, parents should worry about who their children are communicating with online. But if your child is playing on a Minecraft or League of Legends server, take comfort that they’re building competitive and social skills by being in communication with other players. In fact, Scot Osterweil, creative director for MIT’s Education Arcade, which promotes gaming in educational scenarios, made this valid point:

“Which child is more at risk for antisocial behavior? The one who spends six hours rambunctiously playing video games with friends, or the one who spends six hours alone in their room practicing the violin?”

On Playing Video Games with Your Children

I want to dedicate a section of this article to playing video games with your children, because I feel it’s of vast importance to connect with your children in activities they enjoy. Consumer Reports has an excellent article titled “How to Play Video Games With Your Kids”, but I want to lend my own perspective as a self-professed gamer and parent of two.

Growing up, I was definitely a book and computer nerd – my father was a mechanic and spent many hours in the garage. I knew almost nothing about cars, and he knew almost nothing about computers. We had very little to bond over - until we had a Sony Playstation in the house, around 1999. Suddenly, we discovered car racing games together – and he actually bought steering wheels for us to use while playing. This led to a kind of father/son bonding we never really had before.

I realize that video games can hold absolutely no interest for some parents – especially parents who work long hours. It’s incredibly difficult to come home from the office, cook dinner, make sure everyone has done their homework, and squeeze in a few rounds of Mario Kart. We have to at least make the effort though.
Here are some tips that can help you better bond with your children through video games:

Choose games that are fun – It doesn’t always have to be educational games. You’re going to get bored really fast if you’re trying to bond over some “Math Made Fun for Preschoolers” app. Choose something fast-paced, or competitive. Even a board game that’s been adapted to a 3D console – I used to play Monopoly on the Super Nintendo with my mother and older sister.

Set a game night – As I said earlier, it can be really difficult for parents to find time in their schedule to sit down and play video games with your children. Try to plan it ahead of time. Make Wednesday nights family video game time, for example.

Sprinkle in parental wisdom – You can play video games with your children and still find ways to sprinkle in parental wisdom. Are they getting frustrated at a difficult level? Hey son, we win some and we lose some. They don’t have enough coins to buy the best sword in the game? Well son, that’s the nature of capitalist economics.

Take interest in the video game storylines – If you have older children who are playing games with lots of character dialogue and cut-scenes, recognize that some of these video games can actually be more like interactive movies. Your child is presented with situations and moral dilemmas, and very often, your child’s actions in the game can alter the game’s storyline throughout gameplay. Try to recognize that your teenager isn’t just mindlessly shooting people in Grand Theft Auto – he’s playing the role of Michael, a career-criminal who wants to pull off one last bank heist, to secure the future of his family. As a parent, by recognizing these nuances, you can use it as an opportunity to discuss life choices and grey-area morality.

Play together, Stay together.

What are the negative effects of video games on children?

Before we get into this list, it’s important to remember that the majority of negative effects video games can have on children are a result of over-exposure. You are much more likely to notice these negative effects if your child has unlimited access to video games, and is spending 8 hours per day in front of the Xbox. So don’t take anything on this list as “These things will happen if your child plays video games”, but rather, “These things could happen if your child plays video games for an absurd amount of time every day”.

Overstimulation of the Sensory System – Video games can create states of hyper-arousal, which gamers know as “being in the zone”. This is when the world completely becomes shut out around us, and attention is 100% focused on the gameplay, for extended periods of time. While this state enhances concentration and can lead to world-record breaking game scores, research by Rowan found that repeated and intense over-stimulation can negatively affect neurological development. It could even worsen nervous tics in children with Tourette’s Syndrome, or other anxiety disorders. This is highly contextual, however. Your child would need to be playing very intense, fast-paced games with lots of bright, flashing colors for extended periods, for this problem to crop up.

Sleep Disturbance – There is a correlation between bright screen exposure (artificial blue light, to be more specific) and sleep disturbance. A study by Harvard University found that exposure to artificial blue light, as projected by electronic screens, suppresses the hormone melatonin, which helps regulate our sleep. This has become somewhat mainstream knowledge, and there are a number of apps available for smartphone screens that reduce blue light emission.

Time Distortion – This isn’t necessarily unique to gamers; it happens to anyone who focuses intensely on a singular activity. Basically, you lose track of time during periods of intense concentration. This means it’s easier for your child to forget to do their homework or take out the garbage during game sessions. Again, this happens to anyone, not just gamers – give me a good book, and my afternoon is gone.

Mood Dysregulation – A combination of sensory overload and lack of good sleep can have a serious effect on mood regulation. A child who plays video games well past a proper bedtime, and then doesn’t get a good night’s sleep, is definitely going to be cranky and irritable the following day.

Again, all of these negative side-effects are really the result of overexposure. It’s up to parents to monitor and limit their child’s gadget usage time to a reasonable amount. It’s also important to remember that tolerance level may be different per child, but if you really need some kind of guideline to go by, a study by Oxford University shows that the ideal limit for children between the ages of 10 – 15 is around 1 to 2 hours daily of video game time. After the 2 hour mark, the benefits that video games have on cognitive development begin to taper off, and the negative side effects creep in.

Did you know? - Children who play videogames can make correct decisions up to 25% faster.

So What Video Games Should My Children Play?

I’m going to make a few recommendations based on the highest-rated educational games out there, but it’s important to remember that perhaps you shouldn’t just limit your child exclusively to “educational” games. Yes, your child can learn math skills through math-focused games (like the games from 7 Generation Games), but they could also learn problem-solving skills from something as “mindless” as Angry Birds. So try not to immediately write off games simply because they’re not in the “Educational” category.

PBS Kids games PBS Kids games [Multiple device support] – PBS develops a bunch of apps for a number of platforms (Android, iOS, web browser, etc) - some are free, some are paid. But really, you can’t go wrong with some of the selections from PBS, considering they’ve been the largest broadcaster of educational television shows for a long time.

Spelling Game Spelling Game [Android] - Developed by EduBuzzKids, this is a completely free game that focuses on spelling (if you didn’t guess from the title). It has various modes of difficulty, and a large amount of word categories (Food, Animals, Vehicles, Shapes & Colors, etc).

Math Training for Kids Math Training for Kids [Android] - Rated for children 3+, this game covers all the basics of addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division, with child-friendly graphics. It is completely free and highly rated.

Explorium Explorium: Ocean for Kids and Explorium: Space for Kids [Android and iOS]: These games allow your child to explore the ocean or space, and are suitable for 3+. They actually have nicely rendered graphics, and will teach your child all kinds of fun facts about marine life and the solar system. The full versions are paid, but you can download free trial versions to see if your child enjoys them.

Yum-Yum Yum-Yum Letters [iOS] – This is a writing/tracing game that teaches your child how to write and trace letters on the screen. It has multiple teaching methods, themes, and fonts to choose from.

Planetarium 2 Planetarium 2 [Multiple devices] – Available for Android, iOS, and web browser, Planetarium 2 allows your child to explore and interact with the solar system in highly detailed 3D graphics. It’s rated for 3+, but it contains a lot of really in-depth features that could fascinate older children, even teenagers.

Maze Planet 3D Maze Planet 3D [Multiple devices] – This is a complex maze game where you must rotate a cube to navigate a ball through the maze corridors. It’s not only great for planning and problem solving, but spatial awareness.

The Room The Room [Multiple devices] – An exceptionally fun puzzle-based, hidden-object game. This is really a great game for memory, concentration, and awareness, as your child will need to carefully look for hidden clues and put them together to move onto the next stage.

Piano Tiles 2 Piano Tiles 2 [Multiple devices] – This isn’t a piano simulator – you need to quickly tap tiles (notes) as they fly across the screen, with the tiles appearing in order of the rhythm of the song being played. It’s kind of a difficult concept to put into words, but it’s a fantastic game for training reaction time, and also exposing your child to a huge variety of classical and modern piano music (which has its own benefits on the brain).

Uno Online Uno Online [Web browser] – The classic card game Uno is wonderful for teaching children color and pattern recognition, basic arithmetic, and strategy planning. By playing online against other players, they’ll also develop competitive spirit, which is certainly healthy for children.

Roblox Roblox [Multiple devices] – Roblox is a massively multiplayer online game that is enjoyed most by children in the 10+ age range. Its focus is on developing minigames with the Roblox tools, or playing minigames created by other uses. It’s a wonderful game for children who have any interest in developing games, computers, etc. There are also options for parents to limit or disable chatting in Roblox, so you don’t need to worry about your child having inappropriate conversations with strangers.