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Excessive Gaming is Linked to Reduced Cognitive Abilities in Students

By: Tracy Markle, MA, LPC
Founder, Co-Director of Digital Media Treatment & Education Center
Founder, Owner of Collegiate Coaching Services

Now that spring semester is upon us, it is important to determine what steps will prepare your student to be successful in college, especially if one of their pastimes is to play online video games. Collegiate Coaching Services and Digital Media Treatment & Education Center, located in Boulder, CO, work together to provide an integrative approach to supporting students who struggle with gaming overuse, mental health concerns, and learning differences. We provide students with a continuum of academic and clinical supports which includes: executive function coaching, therapeutic support, parent coaching and education and treatment for digital media overuse.

Through our work, we find that students who enroll in college with a history of gaming have experienced at least some of the negative impacts that typically co-exist with gaming, such as poor sleep hygiene, struggling to prioritize homework, and difficulty preparing in advance for larger assignments. Students game for several reasons, however, we find that most students game for reasons like escaping from stressors, for entertainment, to connect with friends, and to gain a sense of achievement; especially if they struggle to feel accomplished in other domains, such as in the classroom.

It is important for parents and students alike to understand that the areas of the young adult brain responsible for executive control are still developing and will be doing so until approximately age 25. Young adults who have been diagnosed with ADHD, Autism Spectrum Disorder, and specific learning differences associated with reading, writing and math, are found to be approximately 3-5 years behind their ‘neurotypcial’ peers in the areas of emotional development, as well as the development of their executive function cognitions. Excessive gaming by college students is found to negatively impact the student from accessing key executive function processes, which is found in the pre-frontal cortex of the brain. This area of the brain has a vital role in higher-order functions such as, judgment, time management, self-regulation, impulse control, organizational abilities, preparing, planning and executing plans and more. In other words, when video games are played for several hours each day, the prefrontal cortex and the all-important executive function abilities essentially go “offline’. Students find they cannot limit their time playing and easily forget about their important due dates and responsibilities.

We know that young adults transitioning to college for the first time will encounter many new and unexpected challenges. Even for returning students who know more about what to expect, they must continue to work hard to stay on top of their academic requirements, life management expectations, and to maintain healthy relationships. It is important to note, for students with a history of excessive gaming, that studies on excessive gamers found lower gray matter density in brain regions that are involved in decision-making, behavioral inhibition, emotional regulation, and attention. This information should raise red flags for students who have a history of gaming excessively either prior to college or during, as well as their parents. Researchers have discovered that the more gray matter there is in certain parts of the brain, the more intelligent the person is. Therefore, keeping video game play to a minimum seems to be key for being a successful student.

Lastly, we are aware that gaming overuse and addiction is associated with “faulty decision-making and a preference for immediate reward to long-term gains”. Completing a college degree requires an ability to delay gratification and keep the long view in mind as it relates to long term goal planning and achievement. An ability to persist through the mundane, less stimulating coursework which all students encounter, is imperative. Students also need the ability to make decisions that are pertinent to their academic degree, emotional and physical health, and manage regular periods of stress due to the pressures of college life. These areas are difficult enough to master for young adults; consider how frustrating and challenging the college experience would be if the student also struggled with excessive gaming.