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Can Playing Video Games Improve a Child's IQ?

MUO logo MUO 6/10/2022 Johnathan Jaehnig
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Studies and data have come a long way, but there's still a lot to be determined when it comes down to what exactly constitutes intelligence and how, or if, it can be accurately measured.

It’s an age-old question: will your child's IQ improve if they play video games? A May 2022 report is amongst a few that are claiming to have an answer. Let's dive in.

The Relationship Between Games and Intelligence Is Tricky

There’s a long history of academics, parents, students, and gamers asking whether video games make us smarter, hurt our intelligence, have both effects, or have no effect. The research results have been mixed. There are a number of reasons for this.

For one thing, there are a lot of questions about what constitutes a video game. Should mobile games and console games be in the same category? What about puzzle games and shooters? Do online multiplayer games have a different impact than games played alone? Further, a person’s day includes a lot of activities and it’s very hard to isolate gaming as a single variable.

If one child likes video games and studying while another hates both, does that mean that video games contribute to intelligence? If one child is more able to play video games because their family is financially better off than that of another child, how much of the intelligence difference is from gaming, and how much is from different economic opportunities?

And what constitutes intelligence? Is it grade scores? IQ tests? Something else? Even this is up for debate. Authors of a May 2022 scientific report published by the journal Nature claim to have at least gotten closer to answering some of these questions.

The Impact of Digital Media on Children’s Intelligence

The paper, titled “The impact of digital media on children’s intelligence while controlling for genetic differences in cognition and socioeconomic background”, corrects its findings for genetics and parent education. This is important because, according to the authors, “intelligence, educational attainment, and other cognitive abilities, are all highly heritable.”

While some may take issue with the assertion that intelligence is genetically predetermined, the authors also accounted for the education of the parents. While the level of education does not necessarily track with household income, this is arguably a decent proxy for complex socio-economic data.

The research included baseline information on almost 10,000 American children between the ages of nine and 10, and followed up with over half of them two years later. Researchers also looked at “polygenic scores” to account for “genetic differences.”

Gaming Positively Impacted Intelligence

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The authors analyzed “screen time” which included time spent watching videos, playing video games, and engaging with social media. It also analyzed intelligence using five intelligence measures. The results:

“At baseline, time watching and socializing were negatively correlated with intelligence, while gaming did not correlate. After two years, gaming positively impacted intelligence but socializing had no effect (…) unexpectedly, watching videos also positively benefited intelligence.”

The paper further says that not only did gaming itself positively correlate, the time spent gaming positively correlated. In other words, gaming more means greater cognitive increases. It’s okay to be suspicious.

The authors of the study were the first to point out a few problems with their report, as should be the case for any group of responsible researchers. Some of these problems are those questions we mentioned above that plague all studies of this kind.

Potential Problems With the Study

Screen time info was from survey data. It was impossible for researchers to know whether the games reported were smartphone games, console games, online, or offline. Further, survey data often face the problem of respondents filtering their answers to make themselves look “better.” If parents wanted to seem cooler or stricter, they could have misreported data.

There are also problems the authors didn’t mention. The tests used to determine intelligence didn’t include an “IQ” test. They included word and image recognition, memory, spatial reasoning, audio response, and other similar metrics. However, they didn’t include metrics for language comprehension, mathematics, logic, and other factors that one might expect.

Arguably, the authors defined intelligence as “skill at videogames” and then determined that playing video games increases intelligence. This could also explain some of their mysterious findings like why videos increased “intelligence” but socializing didn’t.

Watching videos contributes more to image recognition and audio response, which were tested, and social media contributes to intelligence more through language comprehension, reasoning, and other metrics which weren’t tested.

How Have Other Researchers Approached Gaming and Intelligence?

Other similar studies have accounted for this and come up with different results regarding gaming and intelligence. A 2015 study published in SAGE Journals on gaming and intelligence had similar results using similar tests but “when analyses examined the full range of subjects at both the task level and the latent construct level, nearly all the relations between video-game experience and cognitive abilities were near zero.”

Intelligence is a multifaceted concept, and researchers on both sides of the table have carefully selected elements of intelligence that would or would not correlate to video gaming. And in its introduction, the authors of the 2022 study do say that they were already expecting their research to show a correlation between video games and intelligence.

Game in Good Health

So, can playing video games improve a child’s IQ? The answer to every good yes-or-no question is “sort of.”

There are aspects of intelligence that video games can improve and aspects of intelligence that they can’t. Video games, like most other things in life, are healthy in moderation. But they aren’t a substitute for learning.

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