By Alan Mozes
TUESDAY, April 23, 2019 (HealthDay News) -- Does playing a lot of video games really jeopardize a boy's ability to make and keep friends?
Maybe not, reports a team of Norwegian and American researchers.
Investigators spent six years tracking the gaming habits and social interactions of nearly 900 Norwegian children from ages 6 to 12. They found that as a whole, children who were more adept and comfortable with socializing between ages 8 and 10 were less likely to spend time playing video games by the time they were 10, 11 or 12.
But when looking at boys only, the study found that "time spent gaming did not affect boys' social skills [and] competence at any time point," noted study author Beate Hygen. She's a postdoctoral fellow in the department of psychology at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology in Trondheim.
In contrast, the more time a girl spent gaming at age 10, the more social interaction difficulties she experienced by age 12.
"This finding came as a surprise to us," said Hygen. "We did not expect to find this."
Hygen offered a few theories as to why gaming might affect girls differently from boys.
"Girls tend to play in smaller groups than do boys," she noted, "and their relationships are often more intimate." So it could be that girls who game lose out on social intimacy more than their male peers.
In other words, "time spent gaming may carry less of a developmental 'cost' for boys," Hygen said.
And because boys tend to spend a lot more time gaming than girls, "it could be that gaming is more integrated in boys' play culture, and thus plays an important part of boys' socialization," she added.
Meanwhile, "girls may be less accepting of girls who game a lot," Hygen noted. On the one hand, this could mean that girls have fewer girl friends to game with, while on the other they might also end up being ostracized when trying to socialize in a non-gaming environment.
But according to Dr. Anne Glowinski, a professor of child psychiatry, "It could also be that girls who have a hard time with social engagement are just more drawn to video games in the first place."
Glowinski directs the child and adolescent psychiatry education and training program at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis.
"Causation is just very, very difficult to prove," cautioned Glowinski, who was not involved with the study.
"But the different impact that they see with the girls is interesting," she added, "because we do think, as a generalization, that girls have different kinds of conversations with one another than boys -- often with more emotional content and focus on feelings. So it's possible that engaging in video games does deprive girls of a certain kind of development that goes along with that, which is a loss that perhaps boys wouldn't experience as much."
In the study, researchers checked in with the children every two years to assess video gaming routines on tablets, PCs, gaming consoles or phones.
In turn, the team focused on how those gaming habits related to the use of specific "social skills" that kids need to develop to make friends and help them navigate social groups.
Those, said Hygen, include learning how to share, how to cooperate, how to assert oneself, how to express confidence, and how to control one's emotions and behavior.
The children's teachers reported on the kids' overall "competence" on all those measures, while the kids themselves indicated how often they gamed with friends.
But despite observing that gaming may be linked to worse social skills among certain girls and at certain ages, Glowinski said the broader message is that "we can't quite say that gaming really causes poor social skills.
"I would even say that we should be careful not to idealize the non-gaming world that we assume is a rich environment for social development," she noted.
"There's certainly something really unappealing about seeing a kid glued to a TV or a phone or a video game. But it might also be true that some aspects of video games are pretty socially engaging," Glowinski pointed out.
Hygen and her colleagues report their findings in the April 23 issue of Child Development.