PROVO, Utah — Video games are often criticized for their negative effects on children and teens, but a new BYU study has discovered several benefits for adolescent girls who spend that screen time with parents.
"If you're looking for a way to connect with your daughter and she's into gaming, it might be a really good thing to do," said BYU professor of family life Sarah Coyne, and lead author on the study, which is being published in February's Journal of Adolescent Health. "Video games have a pretty bad rap, but when used in the right way, they can have positive effects and even bring you closer."
The study found that 11- to 16-year-old girls who played age-appropriate games with their parents (mostly dads) exhibited three times better pro-social behavior and about four times less aggression than boys. They also displayed a greater sense of connectivity to family.
"A lot of times we focus on how media is a negative aspect in (children's) lives, but we wanted to understand ... how connections might be fostered through media," said co-author Laura Padilla-Walker, also a professor in BYU's School of Family Life.
Despite the many positive effects on girls, researchers were surprised to note that adolescent boys showed no measurable differences when parents played video games with them.
"Boys are playing significantly more video games than girls, but they're not co-playing any more frequently," Padilla-Walker said. "For girls, (playing video games) might seem like an extra special thing they do together (with parents) ...whereas with boys ...it's just kind of a drop in the video-game bucket. It doesn't quite seem to have the same impact."
Another distinct factor was the type of games boys and girls were playing, Coyne pointed out.
Adolescent boys listed "Call of Duty," "Wii Sports" and "Halo" as their favorite games to co-play with parents, several of which have a "M" or "Mature" rating, while girls picked more cooperative-type games like "Mario Kart," "Wii Sports" and "Guitar Hero," most of which are rated "E" for Everyone.
While other studies have shown a link between violent video games and increased aggression in children, this study noted specifically that girls who played age-inappropriate games showed a decrease in family connectedness.
"Playing something with your child, in some ways, it suggests that you're then endorsing it," said Padilla-Walker, adding that some parents mistakenly think the opposite — that their presence is protecting their child against something age inappropriate. It's just another reminder for parents to be aware of, and use the ratings on their children's video games, she said.
The study relied on data from BYU's Flourishing Families Project, a study that began in 2007 to collect data relating to adolescents from nearly 700 families in two locations. This study specifically involved 287 families with an adolescent child.
For her next project, Coyne is studying how friends behave toward each other after they've played a video game together.
"I think the video game industry will be happy about (this study), and I think everyone should be," Padilla-Walker said. "Some of the video games in some contexts can be good. Doing something together as a family and in moderation can be a good thing."