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Want to Raise Successful Kids? Science Says This Controversial Habit Makes Them Smarter

Suppose I were to tell you that a habit most parents discourage — in fact, one that they might well have gotten into arguments with their kids over -; could actually lead to greater intelligence?

Our subject today is about video games. A new study out of Europe used a “massive” amount of data to determine what happens to kids who spend an above average amount of time playing them.

The results are striking, and they represent the latest and largest study to reach a similar, positive result. They also represent a reason to do the opposite of what many parents have preached for decades or more.

Writing in the online peer-reviewed journal Scientific Reports, researchers said they found that kids who spent more time playing video games than their peers over a 2-year period wound up with higher IQs as a result. 

As the authors summarized:

“While children who played more video games at ten years [old] were on average no more intelligent than children who didn’t game, they showed the most gains in intelligence after two years, in both boys and girls. 

For example, a child who was in the top 17% in terms of hours spent gaming increased their IQ about 2.5 points more than the average child over two years.

This is evidence of a beneficial, causal effect of video games on intelligence.” 

I’ve emphasized those two words, “causal effect,” because so often in these kinds of studies we’re left to wonder whether it’s simply a matter of correlation, meaning perhaps that children who become smarter for unrelated reasons, also happen to play video games.

But here, the authors explicitly say they believe it’s the video game playing itself that leads to higher intelligence.

The researchers, at universities in the Netherlands, Germany, and Sweden, interviewed thousands of American children, and used data from the Adolescent Brain and Cognitive Development (ABCD) program, which bills itself as “the largest long-term study of brain development and child health in the United States.”

They connected with  5,000 children least twice: first, when they were between 9 and 10 years old, and then again two years later, at ages 11 and 12. 

Each time, they tracked how much the children said they spent their time doing three screen-related activities:

  • Watching online videos or TV shows (2.5 hours per day, on average)
  • Socializing online (presumably via social media) (30 minutes per day, on average)
  • Playing video games (one hour per day, on average)

As the researchers noted, that adds up to about four hours of screen time per day on average; a number that climbed to six hours per day for the top 25 percent. Either way, it’s a huge portion of their free time.

They also tested the children for an intelligence index that included five tasks:

  • “two [tasks] on reading comprehension and vocabulary,”
  • “one on attention and executive function (which includes working memory, flexible thinking and self-control),”
  • “one assessing visual-spatial processing (such as rotating objects in your mind),” and 
  • “one on learning ability over multiple trials.”

In the end, they found that while those who spent the most time playing video games saw their IQs go up the most, while those who spent more of their screen time watching videos or socializing saw little to no difference.

This isn’t the first study to suggest significant cognitive benefits to playing video games.

But the study authors, including Torkel Klingberg of the department of neuroscience at Karolinska Institutet in Sweden and Bruno Sauce, of the department of biological psychology at Vrije Universiteit in Amsterdam, say theirs is different because it took the children’s genes and socioeconomic status into account.

“Many parents feel guilty when their children play video games for hours on end. Some even worry it could make their children less clever,” the authors wrote.

But if there truly is a “causal” relationship between video games and intelligence, and if, “[i]ntelligence is an important trait in our lives and highly predictive of a child’s future income, happiness and longevity,”does this mean parents should encourage their children to play video games as much as possible?

Well, that’s controversial, of course. And, I’d raise two points to consider:

First, there are other health challenges associated with too much screen time in general.

And second, if the children weren’t playing video games so often, would they simply be watching videos, instead?

Or would they be reading books and learning math or studying languages, which might have an even greater effect on increased intellect?

As I write in my free ebook, How to Raise Successful Kids (7th Edition), there comes a time in a lot of success people’s lives when they start to measure success not just by what they achieve themselves, but by what they pass on to the next generation, including their kids.

Maybe studies like this one are part of that reaching that goal.

“Our results should not be taken as a blanket recommendation for all parents to allow limitless gaming,” the researchers wrote. “But for those parents bothered by their children playing video games, you can now feel better knowing that it’s probably making them a tad smarter.”

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.