Plenty of parents fret over their children’s undying love of video games. Do interactive games like Fortnite and World of Warcraft inhibit kids’ ability to hold normal human conversations? Do aggressive games foster an unnatural desire to wield guns and destroy things? Or does gaming help kids develop a crucial suite of 21st-century skills?
A new study from Norway investigates these questions by tracking the relationship between time spent gaming and social competence in a group of 873 kids, starting at age six and checking in every two years until age 12. The results showed that more gaming did not generally predict worse social outcomes in boys, but did have a negative impact on girls: 10-year-old girls who played more games had less social competence at 12.
“Gaming had no effect—positive or negative—on the social competence of boys at any age,” said Beate Wold Hygen, a postdoctoral fellow who led the research. “With girls aged 10, it did.”
The research, published in the journal Child Development, looked at both directions of the relationship: do more socially competent kids spend less time gaming, and less socially competent kids play more? Yes, for both questions and both genders. Does more gaming predict less competence? Yes, but only for girls starting at age 10.
The study offers a few reasons for the differences. Research shows girls tend to play in smaller social circles, and to have more intimate relationships. “Given the differences in boys’ and girls’ social lives with peers, time spent gaming may carry less of a developmental ‘cost’ for boys,” the study said. Also, since boys spend more time gaming, it may be more a part of their play culture and thus play a more important role in their socialization. Since gaming is less “socially normative” for girls, there’s more of a penalty for those who do it. “Girls who game may not only have fewer in-person girls to game with, but also to a greater extent be excluded from non-gaming social interaction with same-aged girls, and the socialization that follows,” the research noted.
The study was conducted by the Norwegian University of Science and Technology, the University of California, Davis, and St. Olav’s Hospital in Norway. The researchers asked children when they were 10 and 12 to report on their usage of video games on tablets, PCs, game consoles, and phones, and their parents to report on their gaming habits when the kids were six and eight. The kids’ teachers completed questionnaires on their social competence, including measures of cooperation, assertion, and self-control.
That kids are deep into video games is not news. In Norway, 96% of boys and 76% of girls age 9-16 years play video games; about half play up to two hours a day, but 8% play for more than four hours.
Research about the effects of gaming on kids is all over the map. One school of thought is that gaming hurts social skills by reducing the amount of time spent in face-to-face interaction, and thus the development of reading other people’s expressions and emotions. It also takes away from physical play and general socialization. One cross-sectional study of children aged 10-15 found that kids who gamed more than three hours a day had slightly more problems than kid who gamed less than one hour; another study corroborated that finding in kids aged 7-12, finding those who gamed more had more peer problems and less “prosocial” social behaviors.
Other studies posit that games may have cognitive, motivational, emotional, and social benefits. Massive multiplayer online games, like Fortnite, involve large numbers of players who have to constantly communicate and cooperate.
The Norwegian study won’t settle the debate. It was completed four years ago, an eternity in tech time. Limitations include the fact that it did not differentiate between genre of game, or ask specifically about watching shows about gaming (an increasingly popular pastime among kids). It also did not ask about parental involvement in gaming, which could have a significant effect (or not). And surveys of kids and parents about their behavior are always somewhat unreliable compared to direct observation.
But the study follows the January release of similar research debunking the idea that tech is ruining kids (or, in the words of one social scientist, destroying a generation). Scientists at the University of Oxford published research in Nature Human Behaviour that analyzed data on more than 350,000 adolescents and showed that technology use had a negligible effect on mental well being. According to Scientific American:
Technology use tilts the needle less than half a percent away from feeling emotionally sound. For context, eating potatoes is associated with nearly the same degree of effect and wearing glasses has a more negative impact on adolescent mental health.
Scientific American points out that while “digital technology use was associated with 0.4 percent of the variation that disrupts adolescent well-being,” the effects of smoking marijuana and bullying had much bigger negative associations.
None of this changes the reality that parents are stressed out about tech. Jordan Shapiro, a philosophy assistant professor at Temple University and author of The New Childhood: Raising Kids to Thrive in a Connected World, argues that kids are simply doing what kids always do: Immersing themselves in the toys and objects that reflect the society they inhabit, and which will help prepare them for the future. “Digital tools act like a bridge between individual and common experiences,” he told Quartz. “They help us to mediate our relationship with the world around us. They ease the strain between inner and outer realities. They do this exceptionally well.”
He uses a football analogy to make his point: he finds American football violent and without a lot of redeeming qualities. But he sees the social value in it, in that it brings people together and it offers a thing for them to talk about. The same goes for video games: “You might look at games and say there’s nothing to this stupid shooting in a virtual world, but there is a social benefit in participation in a cohort’s shared interest,” he says. Kids play games, but also socialize by talking about games.
The Norway study should help put parents’ minds at ease. “Our study may mitigate some concerns about the adverse effects of gaming on children’s development,” said Hygen. “It might not be gaming itself that warrants our attention, but the reasons some children and adolescents spend a lot of their spare time playing the games.”