Do you want to raise successful children? Science Says This Controversial Habit Makes Them Smarter

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Suppose I tell you that a habit that most parents discourage – in fact, a habit that they might well have argued with their children -; could actually lead to greater intelligence?

Our topic today is video games. A new study from Europe has used an “enormous” amount of data to determine what happens to children who spend more than average time playing with them.

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

Writing in the peer-reviewed online journal Scientific reportsresearchers said they found that children who spent more time playing video games than their peers over a 2-year period ended up with higher IQs.

As the authors summarize:

“Whereas children who played more video games at age ten [old] were on average no smarter than children who did not play, they showed the most intelligence gains after two years in both boys and girls.

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

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

I emphasized those two words, “causal effect,” because so often in these kinds of studies we wonder if it’s just a question of correlation, which means maybe being that kids who get smarter for unrelated reasons, also play video games.

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

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

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

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

  • Watch videos or TV shows online (2.5 hours a day, on average)
  • Socialize online (likely via social media) (30 minutes a day, on average)
  • Play video games (an hour a day, on average)

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

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

  • “of them [tasks] on reading comprehension and vocabulary, “
  • “one on attention and executive function (which includes working memory, flexible thinking, and self-control)”
  • “one assessing visuospatial processing (like rotating objects in your mind)” and
  • “one on learnability over multiple trials.”

Ultimately, they found that those who spent the most time playing video games saw their IQ increase the most, while those who spent more screen time watching videos or socializing saw no little or no difference.

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

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

“Many parents feel guilty when their children play video games for hours on end. Some even worry that it will make their children less intelligent,” the authors write.

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

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

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

And two, if kids weren’t playing video games so often, would they just be watching videos instead?

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

As I write in my free ebook, How to Raise Successful Children (7th Edition)there comes a point in the lives of many successful people when they begin to measure success not just by what they achieve for themselves, but by what they pass on to the next generation, including their children.

Perhaps studies like this are part of achieving that goal.

“Our results should not be taken as a blanket recommendation for all parents to allow unlimited play,” the researchers wrote. “But for parents embarrassed about their kids playing video games, you can now feel better knowing it’s probably making them a little smarter.”

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

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