Many parents feel guilty when their kids play video games for hours on end. Some even worry that it will make their children less intelligent. And, in fact, it’s a topic that scientists have debated for years.

In our new study, we investigated how video games affect children’s thinking, interviewing and testing more than 5,000 children between the ages of 10 and 12. The results, published in Scientific Reports, will surprise some.

Children were asked how much time they spent each day on media, watching videos or TV, and playing video games. The answer is: many hours. On average, children spend two and a half hours a day watching online videos or TV shows, half an hour socializing online, and an hour playing video games.

Overall, that’s 4 hours a day for the average child, and 6 hours for the top 25%—a large portion of a child’s free time. Other reports have found that this has increased dramatically over the past few decades. Screens have been around for generations, but now they truly define childhood.

Is that a bad thing? Well, it’s complicated. There may be advantages and disadvantages to the intellectual development of children. These may depend on the results you are viewing. In our research, we were particularly interested in the effects of screen time on intelligence—the ability to learn effectively, think rationally, understand complex ideas and adapt to new situations.

Intelligence is an important feature in our lives that highly predicts a child’s future income, happiness and longevity. In research, it is often measured as performance on a wide range of cognitive tests. In our study, we created an intelligence index from five tasks: two on reading comprehension and vocabulary, one on attention and executive functioning (including working memory, flexible thinking, and self-control), and one assessing visual Spatial processing (like rotating in your mind), and a learning ability about multiple trials.

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This isn’t the first time someone has looked at the effects of screens on intelligence, but the results so far have been mixed. So, what’s so special about this time? The novelty of our study is that we take into account both genetic and socioeconomic background. To date, only a few studies have considered socioeconomic status (household income, parental education, and community quality), and none have considered genetic effects.

Genes matter because intelligence is highly heritable. If left unaccounted for, these factors can mask the true impact of screen time on children’s intelligence. For example, children with certain genes may be more likely to watch TV and have learning problems while being independent. The genetic lottery is a major confounding factor in any psychological process, but until recently it has been difficult to explain in scientific research due to the high cost and technical limitations of genome analysis.

The data we used for the study was part of a large-scale data collection effort in the United States to better understand child development: the Adolescent Brain and Cognitive Development Project. Our sample was U.S. representative in terms of gender, race, ethnicity, and socioeconomic status.

We found that watching videos and socializing online were both associated with below-average intelligence when we first asked kids how much they played at age 10. At the same time, games have nothing to do with intelligence at all. These screen time results were mostly consistent with previous studies. But when we followed up later, we found that gaming had a positive and meaningful effect on intelligence.

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While kids who played more video games at age 10 were no smarter on average than those who didn’t, they had the most intellectual gains after two years, both in boys and girls. For example, children in the top 17 percent of playtime had an IQ about 2.5 points higher over two years than the average child.

This is evidence for a causal effect of video games on intelligence. This result is in line with previous small studies in which participants were randomly assigned to play video games or a control group. Our findings are also consistent with parallel studies showing that cognitive abilities are not fixed but can be trained – including studies using cognitive training intervention apps.

What about the other two types of screen activity? Two years later, media did not affect changes in intelligence. Hours of Instagram and don’t boost children’s intelligence, but they don’t hurt either. Finally, watching TV and online video showed a positive effect in one of the analyses, but not when parental education was considered (as opposed to the broader ‘socioeconomic status’ factor).

Therefore, this finding should be taken with a grain of salt. There is some experience supporting that high-quality TV/video content, such as Sesame Street shows, has a positive impact on children’s academic performance and cognitive abilities. But these results are rare.

When considering the implications of these findings, it’s important to remember that there are many other aspects of psychology that we haven’t paid attention to, such as mental health, sleep quality, and physical activity. Our results should not be taken as a blanket recommendation for all parents to allow unlimited gaming. But for parents who are annoyed by their kids playing video games, you’ll feel better now knowing that it might make them a little smarter.

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