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Mom was wrong: Study shows gaming is good for school

New research yields some surprising results on how students spend their time online, and what it means for their test scores.

Could playing Minecraft and other online games lead to better grades in school? Maybe, as long as you don't spend time sharing details of your digital exploits on Snapchat or Facebook. That seems to be the message of a new study that finds online video games improve students' scores, while social media has the opposite effect.

Researchers at Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology (RMIT) in Australia looked at standard test scores for 12,000 Australian 15-year-olds and also asked them about their online habits.

Two students improving their test scores.

Sarah Tew/CNET

The results are that I finally won a long-standing argument with my mother from 1994: Turns out I probably was better off spending my hours playing long-since-forgotten TurboGrafx 16 games than posting on America Online or the local BBS all day (I guess the simple, text-based forums looked more "educational" to her at the time).

The research, published in the most recent issue of the International Journal of Communication, finds that students who play online games nearly every day scored 15 points above average in math and 17 points above average in science.

"When you play online games you're solving puzzles to move to the next level and that involves using some of the general knowledge and skills in maths, reading and science that you've been taught during the day," RMIT Associate Professor Alberto Posso, who conducted the research, said in a release.

On the flip side, students who used Facebook or other chat apps every day had scores 20 points below students who never use social media. The study doesn't detail which specific games could benefit or harm students, so it's unclear whether hunting Pikachu could lead to better grades.

"Students who are regularly on social media are, of course, losing time that could be spent on study - but it may also indicate that they are struggling with maths, reading and science and are going online to socialize instead," Posso suggests.

He also says it's important to acknowledge that other factors could play a major role in students' progress. The study found that skipping classes can be even worse for scores and that indigenous students or those from minority ethnic or linguistic groups are also at greater risk of falling behind.

The study also acknowledges that kids and games have been the subject of much previous research, with some earlier studies finding a link between playing violent games and violent behavior.

The good news for students from the RMIT study is that Posso isn't suggesting schools banish social networks altogether. In fact, he thinks teachers could incorporate more games and social media into education.

"Teachers should consider incorporating popular video games into teaching, so long as they're not violent ones," he explains, adding that blending the use of Facebook into classes could also help engage students who spend time on the platform rather than studying.

So the future of education is more online games and Facebook. Great, just when I had finally eliminated all the Farmville fanatics from my feed...