Mental health: new research shows playing video games is bad for you, except when it isn’t

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New academic studies have shed light on different aspects of how video games and eSports can affect players’ mental health.

First, the good news. According to University of Saskatchewan computer-science professor Regan Mandryk, gaming can reduce stress, among other benefits.

Mandryk’s research primarily focused on people between the ages of 18 and 55, although it also looked at other age groups, from preliterate children to older adults living in long-term care homes. What she and her colleagues found was that games can promote mental wellness by connecting people over a distance. Games provide communities that foster a sense of belonging in players, and they can help people recover from stress and anxiety.

This is especially important in these times, when—thanks to a certain global pandemic—we’re all feeling a little cut off from one another.

“We have no control over what is going on in the world right now, and that’s causing people stress,” said Mandryk, according to an article published on the U of S’s Department of Computer Science web page. “Right now as people are socially isolated, they are turning to games to self-manage their need for social contact. It’s about taking back control of our own well-being.” 

Mandryk’s team found that gamers with social anxiety displayed substantial mental-health benefits from engaging in multiplayer online role-playing games. Such players reported “connecting more easily with others, feeling more socially competent, and perceiving the game world as less broken than the physical world”.  

Mandryk did caution, however, that whether a particular game will be beneficial depends on the gamers and context, as well as on the game itself. 

“The same game can be helpful or harmful,” she said. “Playing a single-player game and exploring a world can make you feel socially isolated and not provide you with a sense of accomplishment. When playing with others, those other players can be supportive or they can be toxic.” 

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NEW RESEARCH OUT OF the U.S., meanwhile, suggests that a small but significant number of teens exhibit an increase in “pathological gaming symptoms” during the transition into adulthood.

These symptoms, which are lumped together under the term “gaming disorder”, include anxiety, aggression, depression, and shyness.

The study, which was published online in the journal Developmental Psychology, followed 385 randomly selected adolescents between the ages of 14 and 16 for a six-year period, to track changes in their video-game play and symptoms.

According to Douglas Gentile, professor of psychology at Iowa State University and one of the study authors, 10 percent of the study participants started with a high level of gaming-disorder symptoms, and these increased over the study’s six-year timeframe. The remaining 90 percent began with relatively low to moderate symptoms that did not change dramatically.

What does it all mean? Perhaps not all that much. The study’s lead author, Brigham Young University professor Sarah Coyne, said that by the end of the study, those participants who were classified as “pathological users of video games were just as financially stable and forward-moving as gamers who were not addicted.”  

“I really do think that there are some wonderful things about video games,” Coyne said, according to a May 13 news release from the University of Iowa. “The important thing is to use them in healthy ways and to not get sucked into the pathological levels.”

I have done a lot of different things over the course of my life and professional career. I have interviewed Oscar and Grammy winners and written cover stories for glossy newsstand magazines. I have played guitar in a rock band on national TV and run an independent music label for which I wrote all of the PR and marketing materials. In my spare time, I sweated out a novel about a world where raccoons are kings and dragons are real.

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