What are the positive and negative effects of video games?

What's the verdict on video gaming and your health?
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What's the verdict on video gaming and your health?

When many people think of video games, they think of them as a "dumbing down" of society.

Scientifically, that argument doesn't often hold up. Many studies prove that gaming can have positive effects on adult players' health. When it comes to children, however, the results are mixed.

So what's the real story on video games, are they good, or are they bad?

A study was recently released by Melbourne's Murdoch Childrens Research Institute finding that television and video game use in children can lead to emotional and behavioural problems around ages 8-9 years.

It is believed that children are highly sensitive at this age – owing to the biological, psychological, and emotional development that happens in late childhood – and boys, in particular, are associated with greater conduct and emotional problems when they play video games for an average of two hours per day.

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Girls were not found to be affected in the same way with video games, and there was no link found between computer use and behavioural or emotional problems. Other studies have found there's no difference between the types of video games played, either: Oxford University research suggests violent games are no more harmful than non-violent games.

However, it pays to note something important concerning children, their behaviour, and exposure to modern media. Throughout the last 50 years, countless research has lead to so-called "moral panics" over television, computers, and other types of screen-based activity.

A lot of research (including the aforementioned Oxford University study) finds that the video game moral panic is no worse than those that came before them. Generationally, we are always concerned about what the media format of the day is doing to our kids, and overall video games represent a "statistically significant, yet minor, factor" in shaping children's behaviour, the university reports.

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Some studies on children have shown positive effects of video gameplay. According to Pediatrics: The Official Journal Of The American Academy of Pediatrics, "Compared with non-players, children who typically invest less than one-third of their daily free time [in video games] showed higher levels of prosocial behaviour and life satisfaction and lower levels of conduct problems, hyperactivity, peer problems, and emotional symptoms."

This kind of sentiment fits more in line with the majority of research around adult use of video games, which shows some positive effects on health.

A 2013 study of young adults in Germany by Max Planck Institute for Human Development and Charité University Medicine St. Hedwig-Krankenhaus found that prolonged video gaming dramatically expanded the brain's grey matter – typically, participants' prefrontal cortex, hippocampus and cerebellum had all grown over a course of two months of gameplay.

Studies have also found that video gaming improves eyesight of visually impaired people. Canada's McMaster University discovered people born with cataracts who played first-person shooter games for a month could read several more lines down an optician's eye chart than before playing the games.

Massachusetts Institute of Technology researchers have confirmed that vision for all people can be improved with "reasonable doses" of video games, alongside improved brain plasticity, learning, and attention spans.

In terms of mental health, video games have shown to be beneficial too. Many of the world's militaries (including the New Zealand Defence Force) use video games to prevent and treat post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) during and after deployments to combat zones.

Many studies, including one prominent one by Stanford University, have found that "goal-orientated" video games stimulate the reward pathways and the hippocampus of the brain, and dramatically improve symptoms in people with depression.

However it's not all good news. In a review of 300 video game studies published between 2005-2013, the American Psychological Association found a link between violent video games and aggressive real-life behaviour.

As such, it's difficult to say whether video games are "good" or "bad" for your health. Playing them has both upsides and downsides, and individuals may vary based on the types of games they play, the amount of time they spend playing, and, likely, their own existing personality traits.

Lee Suckling has a master's degree specialising in personal-health reporting. Do you have a health topic you'd like Lee to investigate? Send us an email life.style@fairfaxmedia.co.nz with Dear Lee in the subject line.

 - Stuff

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