Video Games: Brain Training Or Addiction?

Recently China has taken drastic action to combat the growing gaming addiction amongst young people, limiting under-18s to only a few hours of play each week. Teenagers are allowed to play from 8 to 9pm on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays only. Does this seem a little harsh?

According to the New China News Agency, however, cutting the hours of gaming is in the interest of children and their development and it states that: "Protecting the physical and mental health of minors (is) related to the People's vital interests, and relates to the cultivation of the younger generation in the era of national rejuvenation."

Some people in the West may think that China has a point. Parents – at times - despair at their children spending far too much time gaming and think this could possibly lead to social isolation, violence and laziness. To give some context though, when television was widely introduced in the 1960s, it was equally demonised as being bad for children as games are today. But are games not the new way of doing things, of connecting with friends and learning new – useful – skills?

The video gaming industry is entertaining millions of tweens and teens world-wide. The industry is larger than the film- and music industries combined, with gamers globally spending up to 3 billion hours a week in front of screens. Fortnite, League of Legends, Call of Duty, Roblox and Minecraft are some examples of the most popular games played by teens. Most of these games are of the action-adventure genre, often with a first-person shooter.

The National Poll on Children’s Health published results from a poll of 1000 parents (2020), taken just before the pandemic, revealing the amount of time teenagers are spending in the virtual world and just how many parents are worried about this.

  • 41% of teen boys and 20% of teen girls play video games daily.
  • 37% of teen boys and 19% of teen girls spend three or more hours playing video games daily.
  • 86% of parents believe that teens spend too much time playing video games and that gaming gets in the way of family activities/interactions (46%), sleep (44%), and homework (34%).
  • 78% of parents underestimate the time that their teenagers spend playing video games.

The addictiveness of gaming is clearly an issue for parents and educators and if you are secretly – or openly – clapping at the Chinese initiative to restrict the playing of videogames, there are actually also positives to gaming and, besides, it is not a sector that is going away. Quite the contrary. Maybe we worry unnecessarily.

So, is gaming all that bad? Surveys on gaming addiction

The obsession with gaming has been heavily researched. A detailed study published in Developmental Psychology looked at gaming and potential gaming addiction – an obvious parental fear – over a period of 6 years and found that 90% of gamers do not play in a way that may be harmful or have negative long term consequences. The study followed 385 adolescents throughout their teenage years into adulthood and found that only 10% of those surveyed presented with traits of video game-addiction, i.e. prioritising playing video-games over everything else. The addictive traits were especially prevalent, this study claims, in young males with low pro-social behaviour. This begs the question if some boys are more prone to game-addiction precisely because they have limited social skills? In such a case, parents should pay extra attention as gaming may be more of an escape (like other addictions) than a form of entertainment alone.

An article in the Frontiers in Neuroscience collated results from 116 scientific experiments studying the effects video games have on the brain and behaviour. Marc Palaus, the first author of this review, wrote that: “It’s likely that video games have both positive (on attention, visual and motor skills) and negative aspects (risk of addiction), and it is essential we embrace this complexity”.

But what could be the positive aspects of gaming?

Gaming allows frequent users to develop their meta skills, including risk-taking, problem-solving, critical thinking, creativity, and even social skills. With the web 3.0, it will be critical for teenagers to have some gaming experience, especially as we are expected to spend more and more time inside the metaverse and for many professions the skills picked up from gaming or spending time making digital art or designing houses inside Roblox is very useful. Logi Analytics, a software company, wrote that “as video games become more advanced, more and more employers are considering the valuable skill set that video gaming brings to a business.”

Even the military is hiring gamers: "The ability to assimilate information, react swiftly and co-ordinate actions whilst remaining calm under pressure are often attributes of people that are good at gaming," a Royal Air Force spokesperson told the BBC.

It is these violent and action-packed genres that often “stand accused of stirring aggression and causing violence and addiction”. But you might be glad to know that there has been no clear evidence to find the link between reported acts of violence in the real world and playing video games (Medical News Today).


So, surely the invaluable cognitive skills developed during play mean gaming is not all ‘wasted time’. (How gamers rule). After all, gaming seems to be the direction the digital world is heading towards and therefore, those 'games' might just land your teen a job in the exciting world of virtual reality. Before you throw the Xbox console away and limit playtime, Chinese style – do remind yourself about the benefits. It is always better to allow some gaming and create ‘healthy’ gaming habits. Head over to the Child Mind Insitute for some tips on how to do this or, which can be more fun, play a video-game with your children from time to time. It will help to understand why games are so entertaining and it can be a great way to connect (that is, if your teen thinks you are ‘cool’ enough) and who knows, it could substantially improve your small motor skills too.

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