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Today in "Your Health," answers to some of the dilemmas faced by the parents of teenagers. But first, it's the time of year when many of us are tempted to buy a video game or two for our kids - even if you're a parent who thinks screen time should be limited, and violent action video games are a no-no. So if you're feeling guilty as you wrap up those gifts, reporter Michelle Trudeau has some information about virtual play that you might find reassuring.
Unidentified Boy #1: Pick it up. It's a chopper gunner. No, let me get it.
Unidentified Teen #1: I just killed a guy, but then I got killed, which means we've got to work. Come on here, we've got to do this. Oh, I missed him. Yes. Got him with a knife, so now I get another bullet.
Unidentified Boy #1: I just got a last second kill.
(Soundbite of gunfire)
MICHELLE TRUDEAU: Two brothers, 11 and 19, sit together in front of a big-screen TV, each gripping a game controller, eyes tracking animated soldiers running, ducking, shooting. It's the chaos of battle, up close and visceral. And the boys are completely immersed.
Professor DAPHNE BAVELIER (University of Rochester): My name is Daphne Bavelier.
TRUDEAU: Professor Bavelier, of the University of Rochester, studies young people playing action video games.
Prof. BAVELIER: We're talking about the kind of video games that makes most parents frown, right? The fast-paced, action games where if you see your 13-year-old playing that game, you're not really thinking he's engaging in a mind-enhancing activity.
TRUDEAU: But Bavelier, having now published over two dozen studies on the topic, finds these games are far from mindless.
Prof. BAVELIER: People that play a lot of action games seem to be good at a number of different skills.
TRUDEAU: And skills that are not just gaming skills but real-world skills -small, incremental changes in some abilities, like how well you see some things.
Prof. BAVELIER: People that play those fast-action games have better vision.
TRUDEAU: Specifically, better contrast sensitivity, as it's called - being able to discern slight differences in shades of gray.
Prof. BAVELIER: And this is a skill that comes very handy, for example, if you're driving in fog. Seeing the car ahead of you is determined by your contrast sensitivity.
TRUDEAU: And Bavelier finds this visual skill lasts for up to two years after people stop playing the action games. And another skill: Gamers are not easily distracted. They stay more focused than non-gamers on tests of attention. And as a result...
Prof. BAVELIER: They're able to detect, for example, new information coming at them faster.
TRUDEAU: And on speed tests, gamers' reaction time is both quicker and more accurate than non-gamers'. And they can switch from task to task much faster than non-gamers, making them better multitaskers.
Brain researcher Jay Pratt, from the University of Toronto, suggests how these non-gaming cognitive skills may develop.
Professor JAY PRATT (Psychology, University of Toronto): What playing these video games does is, it changes your ability to learn, to essentially acquire and integrate information.
TRUDEAU: Pratt is studying differences between men and women in the ability to mentally manipulate 3-D figures. It's an essential mental skill for math and engineering, called spatial cognition. Women typically test far worse than men on this. But when Pratt trained some women on video games, their skills changed.
Prof. PRATT: We found that the women improved substantially, and almost caught up to the men's scores.
TRUDEAU: To understand how gamers acquire these skills, Lauren Sergio, from York University, looks inside the brain. She's found an important difference between gamers and non-gamers in how the brain processes information. She likens skilled gamers to musicians.
Prof. LAUREN SERGIO (Neuroscience, York University, Toronto): So if you look at professional piano players, professional musicians, you see this phenomena where they don't activate as much of their brain to do very complicated things with their hands that the rest of us need to do. And we found that the gamers did this as well.
TRUDEAU: Skilled gamers mainly use their frontal cortex, Sergio finds, an area specialized for planning, attention and multitasking. Non-gamers, in contrast, mostly use an area called the parietal cortex, the part of the brain for visual spatial functions.
Dr. SERGIO: The non-gamers had to think a lot more, and use a lot more of the workhorse parts of their brains, for eye-hand coordination whereas the gamers really didn't have to use that much brain at all. And they just used - sort of these higher cognitive centers to do it.
TRUDEAU: So the next time you despair that your child is immersed in an action video game, remember: Gaming can improve some important skills in vision, attention and spatial cognition.
Researcher Daphne Bavelier hopes that more games will be developed that teach these skills - without the violence of the typical action game. And all the researchers suggest parents should limit their kids' time on video games. Moderation is the key.
For NPR News, I'm Michelle Trudeau.
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