No, Mom. His Brain Won’t Rot.

New research shows the benefits of video game play

Thirteen years ago, a teenager named Lee Boyd Malvo and his older accomplice went on a weekslong shooting spree in the Washington, D.C. area that left 10 people dead and three injured.

When Malvo went to trial, his attorneys argued that he had been brainwashed and molded into somewhat of a child soldier, in part by repeated exposure to violent videos and computer games.

Ten years later, in 2012, a young man walked into an elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut, and opened fire, killing 20 children and six adults. Media outlets were quick to report that the shooter, Adam Lanza, had been an avid video game player.

Events like the D.C. sniper killings and the Sandy Hook school shootings only seemed to reinforce long-standing beliefs by parents and psychologists alike that too much time playing video games had negative effects on children, desensitizing them to the world around them. 

But newer research has shown that video games aren’t as bad as once feared. In fact, they can be beneficial.

As video games have changed over the years (think Minecraft vs. Asteroids), so have the effects. One study done at Michigan State University found that kids who play video games—vs. kids who don’t play—scored higher on tests judging their creativity.

A study published last year in Pediatrics: The Official Journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics found that games can even be healthy. Author Andrew Przybylski, Ph.D., conducted a study of more than 5,000 children between the ages of 10 and 15. He found that compared with non-players, children who played video games “showed higher levels of prosocial behavior and life satisfaction and lower levels of conduct problems, hyperactivity, peer problems and emotional symptoms.”

Video games, Przybylski found, showed benefits that were comparable to other kinds of imaginative play—“they present opportunities for identity development as well as cognitive and social challenges.”

In Minecraft, players build their own 3D-generated worlds out of textured cubes. Within those worlds, they can explore, gather resources and craft.

Even a simple game, such as Angry Birds, can improve players’ moods, promote relaxation and ward off anxiety, according to research published in American Psychologist last year.

“Video games are a lot different now than they were 10 years ago,” says Peter Vishton, a psychology professor at the College of William & Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia. “They’re solving puzzles, building … they don’t just give you a racecar and you drive as fast as you can.”

First-person shooter games aren’t as bad as once thought, either. According to the American Psychological Association, a 2013 analysis found that playing those types of games improved a player’s capacity to think about objects in three dimensions just as well as academic courses designed to enhance the same skills.

Playing video games may also help children develop problem-solving skills—one long-term study published in 2013 found that playing strategic video games, such as role-playing games, helped improve problem solving and school grades, according to the APA. Video games can also help strengthen cognitive skills such as spatial navigation, reasoning, memory and perception.

Even failing at games can be healthy. By learning to cope with ongoing failure in games, children build emotional resilience they can use in their daily lives, say the authors of the American Psychologist study.

But parents continue to worry that if kids are spending hours on video games, that’s less time they’re spending reading, doing homework and playing outside, Vishton says. Those are valid concerns. Higher rates of obesity have been linked to sedentary activities such as watching TV and playing video games.

Studies that show playing violent video games can lead to aggression can’t be disregarded, but experts suggest there’s usually more going on than just playing a game. An analysis of research by Common Sense Media after the Sandy Hook shootings suggested that media violence was more of a risk factor than a cause of violence.

“Just as not all children raised in violent homes will become violent, not all children who play violent video games will become violent,” the report states. “But there is a greater chance that they will, especially if there are multiple risk factors operating at the same time.” 

Children are often likely to modify their real behavior based on what they’ve seen, says Gayle Dow, an associate professor of psychology at Christopher Newport University in Newport News, Virginia.

“It doesn’t mean they’re going to go murder somebody, but it might make someone a little more aggressive,” Dow says. “It might be a subtle change, but it is there.”

But that’s where limits and the types of video games come into play. Computers and tablets can be set up with parental controls. Parents can check out games before their children play. The website provides hundreds of expert and parent reviews.

Parents should pay attention to the types of games—are they violent, or do they encourage problem-solving?—as well as the age recommendations for the games, Vishton says. One of the most popular war games is the Call of Duty series. Most are rated “not for kids” because of any combination of violence, profanity, drug use and sexual themes.

Instead of Call of Duty: Black Ops III for a 10-year-old, the website recommends a game called Portal 2—described as a first-person action game but not a violent shooter.

Vishton also suggests that parents play games with their children to see for themselves, or at the very least have children play within a parent’s earshot, not holed up in their room.

“If there’s something bad in the game and you’re playing with them, or hanging around near them, you’re going to know what’s going on,” Vishton says.

Common Sense Media’s website also provides ratings and reviews for movies, apps, TV shows, books, websites and music. There are parent blogs on the website where parents can discuss media content with each other, and peruse endless lists of media recommendations.

“Achieving a healthy approach to media and technology can make a big difference in kids’ lives today,” the website states. “Kids who learn to use digital media wisely can accomplish amazing things—learn new skills, explore new worlds, build new ideas and change the world.”