Should your kids play video games? Don’t look to the latest study to find out. 

According to a review of 10 years of research on the effects of video games on children’s brains, the news isn’t all bad. A paper published in a journal of the American Psychological Association concludes: “Still scant but gradually cumulating brain-imaging results suggest that the negative effects of frequent media multitasking and the positive effects of frequent video gaming on cognitive skills in adolescents and young adults are mediated by effects on the frontal lobes, implicated in executive cognitive functions and still developing even through early adulthood.”

What does that mean? As The Wall Street Journal noted, teen and young adult gamers “were better able to switch between visual tasks, divide their attention between different moving objects and remember the location of hidden objects” than nongamers.

It is tempting to mock such results. (Oh, good! My child will be able to help me locate my keys!) Some will note that in our fast-paced world, being able to divide one’s attention successfully is a real skill. On the other hand, focusing one’s attention on one task or object for a long period of time might make a young person stand out.

The real question with video games — as with much of screen time — is one of opportunity costs. What could your child be doing instead? Could they be reading? I know, it’s a quaint idea, but as of 2019, the average American spent about 16 minutes reading per day, down from 23 minutes in 2004. Maybe we could get our children to eke out a few more minutes? Many employers still value the ability to read and analyze complex material more than remembering the location of hidden objects.

What else could your child be doing instead of playing video games? Perhaps you’ve heard that our children are going through a mental health crisis — the result in part of remote schooling and isolation caused by COVID-19. There are proven strategies for improving mental health, and playing video games is not among them. Going outside, however, is. Before your child sits down in front of a video game screen, maybe ask if a little fresh air is in order.

What about exercise? Yes, I noticed that the International Olympic Committee is considering the addition of esports to its event roster but, no, I don’t think that playing video games will have the same mental and physical health benefits as kickball or tennis. A run around the block will not take too much time away from Fortnight.

Then there is socialization. Yes, kids are finally back to seeing each other in person, but seeing other children in school and on organized sports teams is not the same as unstructured play. Kids need to relearn how to make friends, how to negotiate disagreements and how to enjoy themselves without the constant supervision of adults or the intrusion of screens. Have your kids done that today?

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What about time with family? Have you had a conversation with your child today? Have you shared a meal? Has your child helped a sibling with homework? Or have you just chauffeured while your child played on his or her phone? Before the video games, maybe try a family dinner? 

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What about chores? Have you found yourself wandering around the house picking up laundry, loading the dishwasher or wiping down the bathroom sink while your child is planted in front of a screen? I’m not saying children are free labor, but I’m not saying they’re not. 

It’s not that there is nothing interesting or fun about video games. Yes, it’s better for kids to play them with friends. And yes, it’s preferable if the games are not too realistic in their depictions of violence or sexually suggestive. Maybe this new study will make parents feel better about the hours of their lives their children are spending in these pursuits. 

But before parents consent to video gaming, it would be worth considering some alternative pursuits. Some of these will involve more nudging and monitoring at first. But if you’re looking for improved brain development, nothing will beat reading.

When thinking about screens, it’s always useful to return to the analogy of food. A little junk food here and there is not going to hurt — and in certain situations where we need energy quickly or just a treat to reward ourselves after a hard day — there is plenty to recommend peanut butter cups. But in terms of ensuring that our bodies and minds are developing healthy habits and bring us long-term benefits, a regular balanced diet has the most going for it. This is all the more true for our kids.

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