Researchers found that kids who played video games for less than one hour a day were more likely to be happy, helpful and emotionally stable than kids who never grab a controller, according to findings published online Aug. 4 in the journal Pediatrics.
More than three hours daily of gaming had the opposite effect, however. Video game junkies were more likely to be moody, unhappy with their life and apt to act out in negative ways.
Either way, parents should not expect video games to have much sway over their teen’s emotional growth, said lead researcher Andrew Przybylski, an experimental psychologist at the Oxford Internet Institute, part of the University of Oxford in England.
Results showed that time spent playing video games has a maximum 1.6 percent overlap with a kid’s social development, whether positive or negative.
Other factors likely play a much more important role in a child’s emotional health, including the stability of their family life, their relationships at school and whether they are impoverished or deprived, the researchers concluded.
“There’s no doubt there’s a statistically significant link, but the effect is so small that researchers should question whether this relationship is practically significant,” Przybylski said.
To examine both the positive and negative effects of gaming, researchers assessed the video game habits and emotional growth of nearly 5,000 British boys and girls aged 10 to 15.
Each kid reported the number of hours they spent each day playing console-based or computer video games. Participants also filled out a series of questionnaires to determine their emotional health and development.
Three out of four British kids play video games on a daily basis, the researchers discovered.
No effects were found for kids who played between one and three hours a day. They had about the same emotional development as those who never played.
Kids who played less than an hour a day tended to be more happy with their life, more helpful and kind to others and less likely to brood over problems or act out, the study showed.
The opposite held for kids who played more than three hours, a finding that has been reflected in earlier research on video games.
There’s one likely reason for the positive impact that came from a minimum amount of gaming, Przybylski said — the kids are having fun.
“When kids are having fun and are at play, you’d expect them to be happy, right?” he said.
Other experts agreed. “Video games are good at challenging players to solve problems, and overcoming those problems can be very gratifying,” said Dr. Paul Weigle, a pediatric and adolescent psychiatrist in Mansfield Center, Conn. “They can have a benefit for teaching problem-solving and persistence.”
A kid who plays some video games also might find it easier to socially connect with classmates than those who don’t, Weigle added.
“Friendships are often based on mutual interests,” he said. “For better or worse, most kids are spending a substantial amount of time playing video games. Kids who aren’t playing video games can feel left out of the conversation.”
Weigle noted there could be other explanations outside video games for the results found in the study.
For example, a kid who plays video games less than an hour a day may benefit from caring parents who are more engaged and limiting their child’s time in front of the computer or television. By the same token, a teen who never plays video games may live in a financially strapped, stress-filled home.
The findings do lend support to the American Academy of Pediatrics’ recommendation that parents limit children’s video game or screen time to an hour or less a day, Weigle said.
“Unfortunately, that’s very different from the average media intake of American kids, which has been an average of seven hours of electronic media every day, and two hours of that video game play,” he said.
Noting the small impact that video games exhibited on emotional growth, Przybylski said concerned parents who want to help their child’s development would do best to spend more time with them — even if that means grabbing a controller and sitting down next to them.
“Active engagement — maybe even playing video games with your child — will give you a better understanding and provide you valuable insights into why your child is playing and what they’re getting out of that,” he said.