Heavy video gaming can be part of a healthy social life, research shows

June 12, 2017 by Christina Cooke, Johns Hopkins University

Michelle Colder Carras was concerned about her teenage sons playing video games for at least an hour or two each day, more on weekends. But then she tried playing Dance Dance Revolution, a musical game that challenges players to match dance step instructions scrolling up the screen while standing on a foot-controlled pad, and she found herself getting in better shape the more she played. Colder Carras, a postdoctoral fellow in the Bloomberg School of Public Health's Department of Mental Health, had also witnessed her oldest son, diagnosed with Asperger's syndrome, connect with others through video games, and even learn to program his own. She asked herself a question: "How can we figure out how to make use of games but also make sure we're not causing problems related to too much gaming?"

Colder Carras had read several studies that described a group called "engaged gamers"—people who gamed heavily but whom researchers did not consider addicted—and she wondered whether online social interactions might help account for certain gamers' relative mental health. She and a team of public health researchers analyzed 2009-2012 data from the Monitor Internet and Youth study, which consists of an annual survey given by a Dutch addiction research institute to approximately 10,000 teenage students across the Netherlands. Their findings, published in the March 2017 issue of Computers in Human Behavior, suggest that teenagers who play video games heavily (defined as four or more hours per day) may not feel as addicted or display problematic symptoms such as loneliness or social anxiety if they are socially engaged through activities like instant messaging or communicating on social media, either while gaming or at other times throughout the day.

To conduct the study, Colder Carras and her colleagues grouped people by patterns of heavy video game play, social networking, and instant messaging, along with symptoms of video game addiction. Among the subtypes of male heavy gamers, she found that those who had more social interaction online were associated with fewer symptoms of and less loneliness and social anxiety than their heavy-gaming counterparts who were less social. The findings were similar for the heavy-gaming girls subtypes, though they also tended to be associated with lower self-esteem. When Colder Carras took into account friendship quality, she found that for one small group of boys, who had good-quality friends on- and offline, the association with depression went away altogether. In other words, for some young people, gaming is not an isolating, addictive behavior so much as a component of an active social life, like eating dinner at a friend's house. "There are boys out there who are gaming a lot, are very social, and have high-quality friends," Colder Carras says. "Even heavy amounts of gaming every day may not be a sign of addiction when put into the proper social context."

The fact that games are a newer technology adds to the stigma, Colder Carras says. "There's a long history of society's being fearful of new technology," she says. "When you think about it, the idea of binging on TV—that's accepted, and it's promoted." Not so with playing video games. The World Health Organization and American Psychiatric Association have both proposed classifying internet gaming disorder as a condition similar to substance abuse or pathological gambling, a move Colder Carras and study co-author Antonius van Rooij, a senior researcher with Ghent University, view as both problematic and premature. The two hope their findings will encourage clinicians to look at teens' habits in context before jumping to a diagnosis. "People are quick to attribute causal influences," van Rooij says. "These games aren't necessarily causing the problems; it might just as well be the other way around. People are not functioning, they suffer from , they're lonely, etc., and they flee into the games because it's an excellent coping mechanism." Researchers need to investigate which symptoms constitute internet gaming disorder—and whether it's an actual addiction or more an issue of impulse control—before the APA formalizes the definition in its diagnostic manual, Colder Carras says.

Treating heavy gamers who are depressed for addiction rather than depression could do more harm than good, Colder Carras adds. Parents often try to limit kids' screen time to break the behavior, which can worsen their depressive symptoms by increasing family conflict and cutting them off from the social support they receive from online friends. In countries like China, Japan, and South Korea, some parents go so far as to send their children to boot camp to try to break them of "gaming addiction." "Saying, 'You need to play fewer video games,' is not taking into account what kids are doing with their time on the —whether they're spending it with friends, whether they're building magnificent block structures in Minecraft," Colder Carras says. "You just have to take a more nuanced approach."

Explore further: In teens, strong friendships may mitigate depression associated with excessive video gaming

More information: Michelle Colder Carras et al. Video gaming in a hyperconnected world: A cross-sectional study of heavy gaming, problematic gaming symptoms, and online socializing in adolescents, Computers in Human Behavior (2017). DOI: 10.1016/j.chb.2016.11.060

Related Stories

In teens, strong friendships may mitigate depression associated with excessive video gaming

January 12, 2017
Teenagers who play video games for more than four hours a day suffer from symptoms of depression, but frequent use of social media and instant messaging may mitigate symptoms of game addiction in these teens, new Johns Hopkins ...

Videogame addiction linked to ADHD

April 25, 2016
Young and single men are at risk of being addicted to video games. The addiction indicates an escape from ADHD and psychiatric disorder.

High Internet, video game use linked to mental health issues

June 27, 2016
Teenagers who use the Internet, social media or electronic games excessively are more likely to experience mental health issues and engage in risk-taking behaviour, research suggests.

Internet gaming's 'not as addictive as gambling but more research is needed'

November 4, 2016
A new Oxford University study suggests that playing internet games is not as addictive as gambling. It is the first research that has tried to measure the scale of gaming addiction in the general population using symptoms ...

How much video gaming is too much for kids?

September 27, 2016
(HealthDay)—Playing video games might improve a child's motor skills, reaction time and even academic performance, but new research shows that too much gaming can be linked to social and behavioral problems.

Video game addiction needs standard definition

April 19, 2013
(Medical Xpress)—Researchers at the University of Adelaide say treatment for people affected by video game "addiction" would be improved if a standard definition of the problem were adopted by psychologists.

Recommended for you

Suicide risk in abused teen girls linked to mother-daughter conflict

October 18, 2018
Teenage girls who were maltreated as children are more likely to entertain suicidal thoughts if the relationship with their mother is poor and the degree of conflict between the two of them high.

Study shows how bias can influence people estimating the ages of other people

October 17, 2018
A trio of researchers from the University of New South Wales and Western Sydney University has discovered some of the factors involved when people make errors in estimating the ages of other people. In their paper published ...

Infants are more likely to learn when with a peer

October 16, 2018
Infants are more likely to learn from on-screen instruction when paired with another infant as opposed to viewing the lesson alone, according to a new study.

Researchers use brain cells in a dish to study genetic origins of schizophrenia

October 16, 2018
A study in Biological Psychiatry has established a new analytical method for investigating the complex genetic origins of mental illnesses using brain cells that are grown in a dish from human embryonic stem cells. Researchers ...

Income and wealth affect the mental health of Australians, study shows

October 16, 2018
Australians who have higher incomes and greater wealth are more likely to experience better mental health throughout their lives, new research led by the Bankwest Curtin Economics Centre has found.

Study suggests biological basis for depression, anxiety, sleep disturbances in older adults

October 15, 2018
UC San Francisco researchers, in collaboration with the unique Brazilian Biobank for Aging Studies (BBAS) at the University of São Paulo, have shown that the earliest stages of the brain degeneration associated with Alzheimer's ...


Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.