What Happens to Kids’ Brains When They Play Video Games, According to a Psychologist

The subject of video games and their effect on the developing brain has long been of interest to parents. Will that PlayStation steal your tween’s innocence and ruin him for years to come? When should you lay down the law and unplug the Xbox? Are these violent games going to create a monster?

First, the good news: Video games are no longer regarded as the root of all evil by the scientific community. In fact, recent research suggests that playing video games can actually be beneficial for kids. But don’t abandon those screentime rules just yet, friends. Instead, keep reading for a more complete picture of what happens to kids' brains when they play video games—the good, the bad and the ugly.

1. The Brain’s Reward Center Lights Up

One thing no one will contest is that video games are seriously fun—and there’s a neurological explanation for this. According to Dr. Olivia Grace, a clinical psychologist and specialist in Internet Gaming Disorder at The Mindful Gamer, “video games activate reward pathways, which release dopamine and other feel-good chemicals in the brain.” But feel-good doesn’t necessarily mean good for you. The expert cites this brain activity as one of the major contributing factors to video game addiction, “a behavioral addiction that’s having a large impact on youth of this generation.” Indeed, a 1998 study published in Nature found that the amount of dopamine released while playing video games is comparable to an intravenous injection of stimulant drugs.

It’s worth noting that dopamine is closely associated with behavior reinforcement, which can be a good or bad thing when it comes to video games (more on that later). The primary concern, though, is that gameplay itself is one of the behaviors that gets reinforced, which can lead to addiction—particularly among teenagers whose brains are hardwired for gratification but underdeveloped in the regions responsible for impulse control. (Which explains why your 15-year-old has no problem playing Fortnite for five hours straight without tending to basic human needs like eating, drinking, and you know, using the bathroom.) The takeaway? Video games serve up so much pleasure that, without limits set on gaming time, kids are at risk of getting hooked on a dopamine rush that few other activities can provide.

2. The Prefrontal Cortex Is Activated to Boost Cognition

When played in moderation, video games boast some significant brain-boosting benefits. Per the National Institutes of Health (NIH), a recent analysis of the Adolescent Brain Cognitive Development Study found that regular gameplay is associated with superior cognitive performance in areas such as impulse control, multitasking and memory.

A scientific article published by Brain & Life magazine explains that video games engage the prefrontal cortex—the brain’s executive functioning center—in a way that’s particularly cognitively demanding and less task-specific. The end result is a cognitive training exercise that simultaneously hones multiple skills, including information processing and visual capabilities (among other things).

In other words, video games can do great things for the learning brain, and even make your kid smarter in the long run. Still, it’s important to keep in mind that some game genres are decidedly less beneficial than others and, again, time spent playing has a major impact on whether the pros outweigh the cons. The same article notes that the brains of gamers who spent more than 10 hours per day playing had reduced grey matter, i.e., the thinking stuff, as compared to a control group that played for two hours per day or less.

3. Sleep Patterns Can Be Disrupted

Dr. Grace tells us that “kids who play video games to excess often suffer from insomnia and poor sleep quality due to increased blue light exposure and high levels of stimulation.” The science confirms that blue light exposure results in delayed melatonin release in the brain, which in turn makes it harder for kids and teens to fall asleep. As Dr. Grace suggests, the additional stimulation provided by video games has a major impact, too. A 2018 study published in Sleep Science found that prolonged and/or evening video game exposure can cause a decrease in Total Sleep Time, an increase in Sleep Onset Latency and modifications to both REM and Slow Wave Sleep cycles—all of which are associated with fatigue and short-term cognitive impairment due to poor quality sleep.

4. Attention Spans Might Suffer

Ever noticed how your kid can give undivided attention to a video game for hours on end, but can’t sit still for five minutes when it’s time to do homework? Well, it’s a little complicated, but the long and short of it is that, as previously mentioned, video games get the prefrontal cortex firing on all cylinders, and that’s what causes all the aforementioned cognitive benefits. 

The downside, however, is that kids can become so accustomed to that level of sensory input that they start to require it. In other words, gaming is a cognitive training exercise that encourages multi-tasking, but that means that kids who engage in excessive play of action-based games might find it difficult to function when the task at hand demands singular focus and involves considerably less sensory excitement.

5. Aggressive Behavior and Anxiety Could be Triggered

This one is tricky—namely because it has a lot to do with the type of game your kid is playing and the type of kid you’re dealing with. The NIH-sponsored study mentioned above found no statistically significant link between gaming and aggression; however, kids who have aggressive temperaments might find those proclivities rewarded and reinforced by violent games, by the same mechanism (i.e., the brain’s reward system and all that dopamine) responsible for reinforcing addictive behavior. Indeed, the folks at Brain & Life report that just 10 to 20 minutes of violent gameplay can cause an increase in aggressive thoughts—and the reward system is one part of the problem.

What’s more, numerous psychological studies have concluded that violent video games, in particular, trigger the brain’s fight-or-flight response—a state of hyperarousal that, when occupied too often, can lead to chronic stress. According to a 2016 article published in Psychology Today, “once chronic stress sets in, blood flow is directed away from the higher thinking part of the brain (the frontal lobe) and toward the more primitive, deeper areas necessary for survival, causing impairment in functioning.” At the very least, this fight-or-flight response is short-circuiting the brain and all but nullifying the frontal lobe benefits that kids can reap from wholesome, moderate gameplay; when it becomes a chronic issue, anxiety, emotional dysregulation and behavioral problems, including aggression, might follow.

Kids Playing Video Games: Three Moms, One Teenager and a Therapist Weigh In

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Freelance PureWow Editor

Emma Singer is a freelance contributing editor and writer at PureWow who has over 7 years of professional proofreading, copyediting and writing experience. At PureWow, she covers...