Researchers have linked spending more time playing video games with a boost in intelligence in children, which goes some way to contradicting the narrative that gaming is bad for young minds.
While the difference in cognitive abilities was a small one and isn't enough to show a causal relationship, it is enough to be notable – and the study was careful to factor in variables including differences in genetics and the child's socio-economic background.
Meanwhile, watching TV and using social media didn't seem to have a positive or negative effect on intelligence. The research should prove useful in the debate over how much screen time is suitable for young minds.
"Digital media defines modern childhood, but its cognitive effects are unclear and hotly debated," write the researchers in their published paper.
"We believe that studies with genetic data could clarify causal claims and correct for the typically unaccounted role of genetic predispositions."
The researchers looked at screen time records for 9,855 kids in the ABCD Study, all in the US and aged 9 or 10. On average, the youngsters reported spending 2.5 hours a day watching TV or online videos, 1 hour playing video games, and half an hour socializing over the internet.
Researchers then accessed data for more than 5,000 of those children two years later. Over the intervening period, those in the study who reported spending more time than the norm on video games saw an increase of 2.5 IQ points above the average rise.
The IQ point increase was based on the kids' performance on tasks that included reading comprehension, visual-spatial processing, and a task focused on memory, flexible thinking, and self-control.
It's important to note that while the study only looked at children in the US and did not differentiate between video game types (mobile versus console games), it's still a valuable insight into gaming and IQ – and backs up the idea that intelligence isn't a fixed constant that we're born with.
"Our results support the claim that screen time generally doesn't impair children's cognitive abilities, and that playing video games can actually help boost intelligence," says neuroscientist Torkel Klingberg, from the Karolinska Institute in Sweden.
As the researchers note, this is not the first study to suggest that there could be a link between the time that kids spend gaming and the development of their cognitive abilities – and there seem to be other associated benefits from video games, too.
The team behind the current research says that small sample sizes, the different designs of studies, and the lack of consideration for genetic and socio-economic influences have all led to the conflicting reports of the effects of screen time that we've seen to date. Those are limitations that this study aimed to minimize.
All of this is to say that there are a lot of factors at play, both in terms of how intelligence might be developed and formed and in the different ways in which screen time might affect our bodies and our habits – so much more research is needed.
"We didn't examine the effects of screen behavior on physical activity, sleep, wellbeing, or school performance, so we can't say anything about that," says Klingberg.
The research has been published in Scientific Reports.