Playing video games may not necessarily impair children’s social skills, and a new study suggests that any behavioral effect that frequent gaming might have may occur only in pre-teen girls.
The rising popularity of video games in recent years has raised questions among parents, doctors and educators about the potential for gaming to negatively impact children’s psychological and social development, researchers note in “Child Development.” But much of this research has focused on kids who spend too much time gaming or favor violent games.
For the current study, researchers followed 873 Norwegian school children for six years, starting when they were 6 years old. Every two years, parents or kids reported how much time children spent gaming; teachers also evaluated the “social competence” of the kids, based on how well they followed directions, controlled their behavior and exhibited confidence in social settings.
After researchers accounted for factors that can independently influence social skills — like being overweight or obese, or coming from a low-income household where parents have less education — they didn’t find any connection between time spent gaming and social skills for boys.
However, for both boys and girls, poor social competence at ages 8 and 10 predicted more time spent gaming two years later. And for girls only, the reverse was also true: girls who spent more time gaming at age 10 showed poorer social skills two years later than girls who devoted less time to video games.
“Poorer social skills predict future gaming, but time spent gaming in itself has no impact on social development — at least for boys,” said lead study author Beate Hygen of the Norwegian University of Science and Technology in Trondheim.
The gender gap might have something to do with differences in how girls and boys game, and how they socialize, the study suggests.
Boys spent more time gaming overall, and they also tended to gather in groups to play.
Girls, by contrast, were more apt to game alone.
“Girls who game may not only have fewer girls to game with, but also to a greater extent be excluded from nongaming social interaction with same-aged girls, and the training in social skills that follows,” Hygen said by email.
At 6 years old, boys gamed for about a half-hour daily, compared with about 15 minutes for girls.
By age 12, boys gamed for more than two hours daily, on average, compared with less than an hour for girls.
The study wasn’t designed to prove whether or how gaming might directly influence social development.
It’s possible that children who struggle with social or behavioral skills might gravitate toward gaming precisely because it doesn’t require face-to-face interactions.
“Older children and teens who have more difficulty interacting may be drawn to more online activities compared to their more socially competent peers,” said Dr. Suzy Tomopoulos, of the NYU School of Medicine in New York City.
“Children who struggle more socially may go online as it may be ‘safer’ than peer to peer interactions,” Tomopoulos, who wasn’t involved in the study, said by email.
The nature of gaming is also different now than it was a generation ago. What used to be a primarily solo pursuit has transformed into a more interactive experience over time — kids today often play online games with friends or make friends with people they compete with in the games.
As the study team notes, these more modern interactive games can involve a variety of cognitive challenges that involve intense social interactions with real-life or online friends. And it’s possible playing these games might actually help kids improve cognitive, emotional and social skills.
Like other forms of screen time, parents should still make sure kids play video games in moderation, Tomopoulos advised.
“Parents should place consistent limits on screen time,” Tomopoulos said. “They should make sure that screen time doesn’t replace face-to-face interactions, socialization and play, as well as not take the place of sleep and physical activity essential to a child’s health.”
On April 24, the World Health Organization issued guidelines encouraging all forms of screen time for kids 5 and younger be limited to one hour a day, and discouraging any time in front of screens for children under 1.