Video games take a lot of heat. They’re blamed for making kids fat, lazy, violent, and withdrawn, among other social ills.
But are these criticisms justified? A recent study in the journal Pediatrics set out to determine whether all video game playing is bad for kids’ health, and which factors determine whether certain kids might be more at risk.
Researchers surveyed more than four thousand public high school students in Connecticut. The students provided anonymous information about their gaming habits, indicators of their health (such as their body mass index), and risky health behaviors (such as their use of drugs and alcohol).
The results suggest that physical and mental health problems linked to video games depend on a student’s psychological investment in those games. Those who were more deeply invested in the games, deemed “problematic” gamers, were more at risk than “recreational” gamers.
The researchers classified a student as a problematic video gamer if he or she agreed with all of the following statements:
- I have been unsuccessful in cutting back.
- I experience an irresistible urge to play.
- I experience tension that is only relieved by playing.
Just over half of the respondents reported playing video games for at least one hour a week. Although the majority of the students reported none of the symptoms associated with problematic gaming, roughly five percent of gamers reported all three symptoms; nearly six percent of the boys and three percent of the girls fit the bill.
The survey results show that problematic gamers are much more likely to smoke cigarettes, be aggressive, and show symptoms of being depressed. Interestingly, problematic gaming was not linked to a student’s grades, extracurricular activities, or the use of drugs and alcohol.
Among recreational gamers, the prevalence of these types of problem behaviors differed across genders. Compared to non-gamers, recreational gaming girls were more likely to get into a serious fight or carry a weapon. At the same time, this group had a lower risk of depression.
Compared to non-gamers, recreational gaming boys were no more likely to use alcohol or drugs, be overweight, or show symptoms of depression than non-gaming boys. They were also less likely to report being a regular smoker.
This research challenges the popular belief that video game playing leads to exclusively negative outcomes for youth. The researchers suggest that future studies should focus on determining safe levels of gaming, identify risk factors for problematic gaming, and develop ways to intervene before the problem takes root.
What’s more, given video games’ tremendous popularity among kids, the researchers suggest that more research should explore how these games could promote positive mental and physical health.