Computer game teaching researchers about how children develop friendships
The Sector > Research > Computer game teaching researchers about how children develop friendships

Computer game teaching researchers about how children develop friendships

by Freya Lucas

April 06, 2023

A computer game about catching escaped zoo animals is helping University of Maryland College of Education researchers understand why some children might have an easier time developing close friendships.


The researchers used a computer game to test children’s capacity to regulate their thoughts and behaviours at an early age, with children who were better regulators showing fewer emotional and behavioural problems as they enter primary school, leading to closer friendships and less loneliness as they get older. 


“We need to understand what’s happening in early childhood that makes some people more connected to others,” explained lead author Selin Zeytinoglu. 


“People who are more socially connected and feel less isolated have better physical and mental health outcomes and live longer lives.” 


The study followed 291 young children over six years. The researchers asked four-year-olds to play a computer game in which they helped a zookeeper round up escaped animals. The kids needed to push a button as fast as they could whenever they saw an animal – unless they saw a monkey, who they were told was helping the zookeeper. 


The researchers found that children who were better at pausing their button-mashing at age four had better control of their emotions and behaviors at age seven and had closer friendships and felt less lonely at age ten, based on their own and their mothers’ responses to questionnaires. 


Because the early school years are such an important time for forming friendships and social groups, children who have difficulty controlling their anger or resolving conflicts with peers at this age may have a harder time forging and maintaining close friendships as they progress through school. 


“Starting early is important,” Ms Zeytinoglu said. “Interventions can focus on enhancing these emotionally supportive behaviors in parents and caregivers early on.”


Review the research in full here

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