Children who play computer games for hours on end risk stunted brain growth and a loss of self-control, research has shown.
A study found that the thought processes required by computer games were too simple to stimulate crucial areas of the brain, leading to underdevelopment and consequent behavioural problems such as violence.
Prof Ryuta Kawashima, of the Tohoku University in Japan, said the greatest threat from computer games was not in their tendency to arouse aggression, as previously thought, but in the lack of mental stimulation they provided.
Prof Kawashima and his team measured the brain activity of hundreds of teenagers while they played a Nintendo game and compared it to another group doing simple arithmetic.
The results showed that, unlike the maths exercise, the computer game did not stimulate the brain’s frontal lobe, an area which plays an important role in the repression of anti-social impulses and is associated with memory, learning and emotion.
A lack of stimulation in this area before the age of 20 prevented the neurons from thickening and connecting, thus impairing the brain’s ability to control impulses such as violence and aggression.
A more highly stimulated and thus more developed brain is able to keep such urges under check.
Speaking at a learning conference in Britain at the weekend, Prof Kawashima said: “The importance of this discovery cannot be underestimated. There is a problem we will have with a new generation of children who play computer games that we have never seen before.”
“The implications are very serious for an increasingly violent society and those students will be doing more and more bad things and not doing other things like reading aloud or learning arithmetic.”
Dr. Tonmoy Sharma, of the Institute of Psychiatry, said Prof Kawashima’s theory was backed by other studies.
“If computer games are the sole or main source of stimulation over a prolonged period of time when the brain is developing, this could result in an under-developed frontal lobe and the behavioural problems associated with this,” he said.
“Computer games do not lead to brain development because they simply require the repetition of simple actions and have more to do with developing quick reflexes than carrying out more mentally challenging activities such as forward planning or analysis.”
“Teaching children to play more demanding games such as chess would be much better than buying them a computer game, although probably not quite as welcome.”
Stimulation of the frontal lobe was also important in the production of the chemical serotonin which is used by the brain to repress impulses.
When this area of the brain is stimulated the brain can effectively produce serotonin and thus repress anti-social urges, but when the area is not stimulated and thus does not grow, serotonin levels fall and a person’s ability to control their behaviour is reduced, said Dr Sharma.