Researchers found that young people who indulged in a short spell of gaming were very sociable and were most likely to say they were satisfied with their lives.
In contrast, those who spent more than half their free time playing electronic games were less well-adjusted, the University of Oxford scientists found.
The study, published today in the journal Pediatrics, found that three in four British children and teenagers play video games on a daily basis.
Those who play for less than an hour a day – less than one third of their daily free time – also appeared to have fewer friendship and emotional problems.
They also reported less hyperactivity than the other groups.
Experts found that video games had no positive or negative effects for young people who played ‘moderately’ – i.e. between one and three hours a day.
The research is thought to be the first to examine both the positive and negative effects of gaming using a representative sample of children and teenagers.
It involved nearly 5,000 young people – half male and half female – drawn from a nationally representative study of UK households.
The participants, aged from 10 to 15, were asked how much time they typically spent on console-based or computer-based games such as the Nintendo Wii or Sony PlayStation.
The same group also answered questions about how satisfied they were with their lives, their levels of hyperactivity and inattention, empathy, and how they got on with their peers.
The findings show that the influence of video games on children – whether for good or bad – is very small when compared with more enduring factors, such as whether the child is from a functioning family, their school relationships and whether they are materially deprived.
‘These results support recent laboratory-based experiments that have identified the downsides to playing electronic games,’ said the study’s author, Dr Andrew Przybylski, of the Oxford Internet Institute.
‘However, high levels of video game-playing appear to be only weakly linked to children’s behavioural problems in the real world.
‘Likewise, the small, positive effects we observed for low levels of play on electronic games do not support the idea that video games on their own can help children develop in an increasingly digital world.
‘Some of the positive effects identified in past gaming research were mirrored in these data but the effects were quite small, suggesting that any benefits may be limited to a narrow range of action games.’