The benefits of playing video games have become clearer than ever in recent years, allowing them to shed their negative reputation for stoking violence and antisocial behavior. Studies have pointed to their ability to improve cognitive function in multiple sclerosis patients as well as how we navigate the world. And now, new research shows that spending lots of time playing Super Mario at an early age benefits kids’ mental health by making them more social, better in school, and overall more intelligent.

The study, published in Social Psychiatry and Psychiatric Epidemiology, comes from researchers at the Columbia Mailman School of Public Health and Paris Descartes University. They took their data from the School Children Mental Health Europe project which involved 3,195 children aged 6 to 11. Each child’s parents and teachers took part in the study by filling out a behavioral screening survey about their child, called the Strengths and Difficulties Questionnaire. This allowed the parents to report their child’s video game usage while teachers could shed light on their student’s academic performance.

The children themselves went through mental health screening with a tool known as Dominic Interactive, which combines colorful pictures and text into a standardized test disguised as a game. In one image, for example, a crying girl was shown with a thought bubble floating above her head. In it was an image of her parents, angry, and pointing at her as she walked away with a suitcase. The kids were asked to respond to the yes or no question: “Do you often feel worthless or guilty?”

When it came to video game time, 20 percent of children played for more than five hours each week, the researchers found, with older boys from medium-sized families logging the most hours. On the other hand, kids with a less educated, single, physically inactive, or psychologically distressed mother spent less time playing, as did children from Western European countries.

When the researchers accounted for the influence these factors played, along with the mothers’ ages, their employment statuses, and the children’s age and gender, they found kids who spent more time playing video games each week were nearly twice as likely to be higher “intellectual functioning” and do better in school. Gamers were also less likely to experience problems within their peer groups. On the other hand, there was no significant association between playing video games and mental health issues.

"Video game playing is often a collaborative leisure time activity for school-aged children,” said Dr. Katherine M. Keyes, assistant professor at the Mailman School of Public Health, in a press release. “These results indicate that children who frequently play video games may be socially cohesive with peers and integrated into the school community."

Keyes was quick to caution that one study shouldn’t make it OK for kids to play video games as much as they want. She said parents should still limit the time a child spends in front of a screen, and that doing so will be beneficial to the “overall strategy for student success.” While the team said video games can have a positive effect on young children, the way in which it does will need further investigation.

Source: Keyes K, et al. Is time spent playing video games associated with mental health, cognitive and social skills in young children? Social Psychiatry and Psychiatric Epidemiology. 2016.