Playing video games actually increases students’ scores in reading and writing, according to a new university study that is sure to please teenagers and rankle parents – but there is a catch.

Headed by PhD student Irteja Islam, a University of Southern Queensland (USQ) research team analysed the results of the Young Minds Matter survey completed by 1,704 Australian students between the ages of 11 and 17.

Students who played video games for one to two hours on weekdays were 13 per cent, on average, more likely to achieve higher NAPLAN reading scores than non-gamers.

And those who spent more than two hours gaming on weekends were 16 to 18 per cent more likely to have better reading scores than those who didn’t, according to the study.

Even casual website and socials scrollers showed improvements, with the students who spent over two hours reading websites on the weekend turning in better reading and writing scores than those who didn’t.

Islam attributed the results to learned habits, such as the ability to quickly parse large volumes of text and the problem-solving capabilities reinforced by games’ often task-focused design.

“The conventional belief is that screen time is detrimental to academic performance,” Islam said in announcing the results, “but this study revealed that moderate use of the Internet and video gaming is not as harmful as we think.”

There’s always a catch

Islam was quick to add a caveat for students planning to run to their parents brandishing the report as leverage to justify more screen time.

Although the analysis showed academic benefits from moderate and repeated screen time, the trend reverses after a point – with heavy gamers and Internet users actually showing worse performance than peers who spend less time in front of their screens.

Students who spent more than four hours gaming on a school night, for example, “appeared to damage students’ scores” while Internet addiction – those who were identified as very often using the Internet – showed lower reading and numeracy scores.

Frequent internet users were 17 per cent less likely to score higher than their peers in numeracy tests, and 14 per cent less likely to surpass them in reading, while “addictive” gamers were found to be 15 per cent less likely to do better in reading.

These results echoed a recent German study of 3,554 adolescents, which found that gaming did not impact mathematical and reading skills – but that longer gaming time was correlated with worse grades two years later.

For the USQ researchers, the implications of the results are clear: “Parents should not worry about Internet use and video gaming as long as they can make sure that children are not addicted to these,” associate professor Rasheda Khanam noted, adding that parents should “limit Internet use during weekdays”.

The psychological impact of video games has been hotly debated for years, with the ongoing debate over violent games still unresolved and counsellors exploring a range of hypotheses to explain the impact of one of the world’s most popular pastimes.

Yet Khanam’s calls for tighter controls on weekday usage will frustrate the majority of students who are, the survey found, already using the Internet and playing video games more than the recommended 2 hours per day.

Australians have long been recognised as avid gamers, with the Digital Australia 2020 survey of 1,210 households finding that two-thirds of Australians play video games.

Some 60 per cent of respondents agree that games promote creativity amongst students, who spend on average 100 minutes per day playing video games – well above the 81 minutes per day average overall.

Parents also believe games give students greater confidence at school, with 53 per cent agreeing and 61 per cent believing that video games help students learning STEM topics.