With Kids and Video Games, Moderation Is Key

Two teenage boys play a game.
(Image credit: Lisa F. Young/Shutterstock.com)

Playing video games for less than an hour a day can have a positive influence on kids' mental health, a new study suggests.

A researcher in the United Kingdom found that young people ages 10 to 15 who spent less than an hour a day playing electronic games were better adjusted psychologically than boys and girls who spent no time playing computer- or console-based games, such as Nintendo Wii or Sony PlayStation.

But excessive gaming — more than 3 hours a day — was shown to have a negative impact on kids' psychological well-being, the study revealed.

"The overall influence of daily video game play appears quite small on the population level," said study author Andrew Przybylski, a psychologist and research fellow at the Oxford Internet Institute in Oxford, England. Compared to kids who didn't play at all, those who had light levels of engagement had modestly more positive outcomes, whereas the opposite was true for high levels of play, he said.

To estimate the positive and negative effects of different levels of gaming on young people, Przybylski analyzed data from nearly 5,000 children and teens ages 10 to 15 in the U.K.  

Participants answered questions about their gaming habits and how happy they were at school and home. They also completed behavioral screening tests to measure their psychosocial adjustment. [9 Odd Ways Your Tech Devices May Injure You]

The findings are published online today (Aug. 4) in the journal Pediatrics.

Effects of gaming

The analysis found that kids with low levels of engagement in electronic games, meaning up to 1 hour daily, rated themselves as more satisfied with their lives and displayed moreprosocial behavior, such as concern for other people's feelings, compared with kids who didn't play any video games.

Those who played for less than an hour a day also had fewer conduct problems and hyperactivity compared with their nonplaying peers. The research did not examine why kids who spent some time gaming might be better adjusted and happier than those who didn't.

Young people who played video games for more than 3 hours daily had more negative impacts on behavior, happiness and social adjustment, the study showed. Those who spend this much time playing video games may miss out on other educational and social opportunities, and might be exposed to more violent and age-inappropriate content, Przybylski speculated in his study.

But no effects — either positive or negative — were seen in children or teens who played a moderate amount of video games, or between 1 and 3 hours daily, compared with the kids who didn't play at all.

It was a surprise that players in the moderate range did not vary significantly from nonplayers, Przybylski told Live Science. He had suspected the moderate players might show both positive outcomes, such as feeling more satisfied and having more fun, and some negative outcomes, like finding it harder to concentrate in school.

One weakness of the study is that it relied on self-reported evaluations by the kids, without any behavioral assessments from parents, teachers or health professionals. It also did not include time spent playing games on smartphones or tablets.

Przybylski suggested that parents discuss and try out video games with their children, so they can gain more insight into how this form of entertainment may be influencing kids.

But he also said that gaming's potential effects on children may be explained by other variables besides time spent participating in the games themselves.

"These findings suggest that the quantity of video game play may not be the best place to focus our efforts in terms of understanding and shaping how young people interact with games," Przybylski said. He said that other factors, such as family gaming and understanding kids' motives for play, may be more important.

Follow Live Science @livescience, Facebook& Google+. Originally published on Live Science.

Live Science Contributor

Cari Nierenberg has been writing about health and wellness topics for online news outlets and print publications for more than two decades. Her work has been published by Live Science, The Washington Post, WebMD, Scientific American, among others. She has a Bachelor of Science degree in nutrition from Cornell University and a Master of Science degree in Nutrition and Communication from Boston University.