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Playing video games could boost brain function in children, suggests new study

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

For a time in the '90s and early 2000s, some people considered video games an intellectual and moral threat to kids. That perception has changed over time, due in part to research that suggests otherwise. A new study in the Journal of the American Medical Association finds that video games may actually have a positive effect on children's cognitive skills.

And here to break down exactly what all of that means is University of Vermont professor Bader Chaarani, the lead author on the study. Hi, there.

BADER CHAARANI: Thank you for having me.

SUMMERS: If you can, tell us a little bit more about your personal relationship to video games. What made you want to study this specifically?

CHAARANI: Video gaming, for me, was something I do at the end of a very long day at work as a form of destress. I know that the video gaming industry is increasing, and we have kids that spend - report spending 15 and 16 hours per day. So it's very critical to see if there's any kind of either negative or positive impacts of this activity that our kids are spending so much time doing it daily - on a daily basis.

SUMMERS: And just looking big picture here, what were the topline findings of your research?

CHAARANI: So we found, basically, that children who play 3 hours or more of video gaming per day outperform kids who never played any type of video games in terms of impulse control and working memory. In addition to this better performance, we are seeing brain activation changes in key areas of the brain involved in vision, attention and memory processing.

SUMMERS: You and I both know our way around the world of video games a little bit. So as I'm thinking about this, I would imagine that playing a game like Call Of Duty or Grand Theft Auto might have a different effect on your brain than if you're sitting down to play The Sims or Animal Crossing. So I want to ask you - does your research suggest that certain video games are better for the brain than others?

CHAARANI: We did not include that in this study. However, there are smaller studies that suggest that action/adventure and fast-paced games may have a different impact on the brain and behavior than problem-solving and logic games. However, at this age, 9 to 10 years old, there are international surveys done on a very large number of kids suggesting that the majority play fast-paced games - namely, like you mentioned, Call Of Duty or GTA or, like, racing - and a very small amount plays those that involve logic and problem-solving and puzzles. So the effect we're seeing here - although we don't have the data, there's a high probability that it's linked to kids that play most fast-paced games.

SUMMERS: So bottom line, for a parent who may be concerned about how much time their kid is spending in front of a screen or with a controller in their hand playing video games, what can this research tell them?

CHAARANI: So there is obviously a negative outcome that results from extended screen time on the mental health and the physical health. However, if that kid is spending one, two or three hours on video gaming, maybe there are some benefits, as our data suggests. These benefits could not be seen if that kid is doing or spending time on other forms of screen time, like texting or watching TVs or YouTube, which are considered more as passive screen time forms.

SUMMERS: That's Bader Chaarani, lead author of a new study published in JAMA on the effect of video games on child cognition. Thank you so much for joining us.

CHAARANI: Thanks for having me again.

(SOUNDBITE OF KOJI KONDO'S "OVERWORLD THEME") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Juana Summers is a political correspondent for NPR covering race, justice and politics. She has covered politics since 2010 for publications including Politico, CNN and The Associated Press. She got her start in public radio at KBIA in Columbia, Mo., and also previously covered Congress for NPR.