On the other hand, teens who daily scanned their Facebook feeds or chatted with friends more than others tended to score 4% worse than average in math.
Based on these results, a little "research to uncover the different ways by which children learn from online games" might improve teaching methods, said Alberto Posso, author of the study and an associate professor at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology's School of Economics, Finance and Marketing.
The study, published recently in the International Journal of Communication
, looked at the activities and test scores of 12,000 Australian teens. It's based on the 2012 results from the Program for International Student Assessment exams, which not only evaluate academic achievement and social environment for kids
at age 15 but also look at their use of technology. How much time did kids spend on Instagram and how much time on "Grand Theft Auto"?
Posso discovered that students who spent higher than average time social networking each day had below-average performance on the tests, while students who spent more than the usual time gaming achieved at levels above the average. He also found that students who used the internet daily for homework tested higher in all three subjects on the exam. In particular, their math scores outranked those of students who did not go online to finish their assignments.
"The study doesn't surprise me," said Edward Castronova
, a professor at Indiana University
who was not involved in Posso's study. But he advised caution: Though there is a link between gaming and higher math and science scores, he explained, it doesn't mean playing games caused the higher scores.
It could just be that "kids who are sharp are looking for a challenge, and they don't find it on social media, and maybe they do find it on board games and video games," he said.
Games people play
"We don't have enough game literacy," said Castronova, who recently developed a program at Indiana University for students to earn a bachelor's degree in game design. As he tells it, there are good games and bad games, and the same parents who insist that their children eat healthy food and watch educational TV might not know enough about video games and react in a knee-jerk way against all of them.
There's a whole category of "see and response" games -- ranging from "Pong" to "Bejeweled" -- in which the main action is a player reacting to something that appears onscreen. "I call those 'twitch games,' " Castronova said, adding that first-person shooters are basically the same.
A recent Spanish study
of nearly 2,500 kids between the ages of 7 and 11 found that those who played video games for an hour a week had faster responses to visual stimulation.
Yet twitch games are light years removed from, say, the Europa Universalis series of video games, which present accurate simulations of Europe between the years of 1492 and 1821. Players take control of one of seven continental powers and expand their influence by making use of military, diplomatic and colonial resources. To play, Castronova explained, you have to understand political systems and strategies at a deep level, and that allows you to launch a series of colonies in Canada, for example, or create a new form of government.
Any of the games that "people call good" are pretty advanced either strategically or narratively, explained Castronova, and they offer players an interesting story and, more important, a series of interesting choices. Not every teen feels challenged by the real world; some gamers play to fill that void, he said.
Still, sympathetic parents worry: Are these games hurting my kid's grades?
Until now, that question has never been answered with definitive results. One 2007 study
of 237 students from a middle school in the United States found a positive relationship between technology use and GPA averages, while a 2005 study
of 101 students in three Ohio schools found no links between internet use and academic achievement. Past studies not only have been small but blur all technologies together.
Meanwhile, for Posso, finding answers about the effects of video games was necessary for one very important reason: While Australian adults use the internet about as much as American adults, Australian teens spend significantly more time online than teens from either the United States or Europe, his study says. Whatever its effects, online time could be hurting -- or helping -- Australian teens more than other teens.
Answers are never easy; Posso's conclusions were mixed.
"Should we advocate that parents stop their children accessing Facebook and online chatting and force them to play video games?" Posso asked.
Unwilling to go that far, he concluded that games "appear to equip students to apply and sharpen knowledge learned in school by requiring them to solve a series of puzzles before moving to the next game level." By encouraging players to strive, video games influence teens in a positive way.