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Video games and mental health

Reviewed by Kirsten Davin

Hands holding a video game controller with a fuzzy, colorful background

For many years, video games have been criticized for creating mental health issues. Some studies have indicated that playing video games can contribute to mental health issues like depression, anxiety, and violent behavior. 

However, the relationship between video game play and mental health isn’t clear cut. Even though there may be potentially negative outcomes associated with video game play, there are also potential benefits. 

What Is Video Game Addiction? Is It a Real Addiction?

One of the most common concerns associated with video game play is the perceived risk of addiction. Although the American Psychiatry Association does not currently list video games as an addiction or a disorder, experts continue to disagree on whether an individual  can become addicted to video games. 

A 2020 study found that most gamers play without long-term damage or negative effects, but approximately 10% of gamers presented with what the study defined as pathological video gameplay.1 This was characterized by excessive time spent playing video games, having trouble disengaging from the game, and experiencing challenges with healthy functioning as a result of excessive gaming. These findings suggest that about 1 in 10 gamers may experience addiction-like symptoms.

Are Video Games Bad for Your Mental Health?

While video games can have negative effects for some, it’s important to note that playing video games, even with periods of intense play, is not bad for the general population’s mental health. In fact, most experience positive mental health benefits from playing, including improved leisure and relaxation.

However, there are circumstances under which video games can have a negative effect on one’s mental health or worsen an existing mental health disorder, making it more challenging to manage. A study in the American Journal of Psychiatry estimated that up to 1% of Americans may have an internet gaming disorder.2 

Individuals with mental health issues, which are not being adequately addressed, are at highest risk for experiencing negative effects related to video game play.

How Much Gaming Is Too Much?

Experts disagree on the recommended amount of video game time that is safe and beneficial for children, teens, and adults. Some experts have suggested that gaming may be considered excessive when it begins to interfere with other activities, including sleep, school work, employment or routine daily activities.

Medical experts have suggested the following general guidelines: 

  • The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends no more than two hours of screen time per day for children.3 
  • For teens, two hours or less of video game playing is recommended, while video gaming in excess of five hours has been associated with negative effects.
  • Adults who play video games in excess of 80 to 100 hours per week are also more likely to experience negative effects. 

Although expert opinions vary on the topic of gaming, most experts agree that if video games are interfering with daily life, or if negative effects are present, the individual should attempt to reduce the amount of gaming regardless of age.

Negative Effects of Excessive Gaming

Excessive gaming can have negative effects on mental and physical health. Gaming has been associated with mental health issues such as depression, anxiety, insomnia, sleep deprivation, and aggression.4

Some of the negative effects of excessive gaming can include emotional suppression, relationship issues, social disconnection, and negative emotions. These can affect children, teens, and adults. Studies also suggest that violent video game material can increase aggressive thoughts, feelings, and behaviors, although this correlation is still up for debate.5

A study by Oxford University found that a player’s subjective experiences during video game play may be a more significant contributor to negative outcomes than the amount of overall time played.6 The study also found that those who reported negative effects from video game play were also more likely to report not having their psychological needs met outside of the game.

Signs & Symptoms of Excessive Gaming

Signs and symptoms of excessive video gaming include:

  • Preoccupation with gaming or specific video games
  • Withdrawal from normal activities and relationships
  • Lying about the amount of time spent gaming
  • Use of gaming to deal with negative feelings and emotions
  • Changes in behavior or mood
  • Declining performance in school, or work, including an increase in absence or tardiness

If you notice the signs or symptoms of excessive gaming in yourself or someone you love, check out our directory of therapists today to find the help you need.

How to Set Healthy Video Game Limits

Experts agree that setting healthy video game limits is beneficial for all age groups. 

  • Set limits: Create screen and video game time limits for children and teens. A media plan can help children and teens enjoy video games in a healthy way without the risks of excessive gaming. Setting limits for adults can also help avoid issues like sleep deprivation. 
  • Find alternatives to violent games: If violence is prevalent within one’s video game selection, look for alternatives that are less violent. 
  • Play together: Make gaming a family affair in order to better monitor children and teens during play. Consider playing with friends so that gaming becomes more social.
  • Encourage other interests: Children, teens, and adults can have healthier video game habits if they have other interests and hobbies. This encourages a healthier balance in leisure activities. 

Mental Health Benefits of Video Games

While the focus of video game discussion is often on the negative effects of gaming, research has shown that there are a number of mental health benefits associated with  playing video games. Video game play can promote learning, improve mental health, and enhance social skills.

Relaxation & Mood Regulation

One long-term study published in 2013 found that playing simple games could improve the player’s mood, help them relax, and reduce anxiety.7 Researchers have also found that video games may help children and teens be more creative, develop problem-solving skills, and become more emotionally resilient.

Other studies suggest that healthy video game play may reduce depression and anxiety.8 One study found that playing for just 30 minutes per day could help alleviate symptoms of clinical depression, particularly in older adults.

Many players report that video game play helps them improve their mood and manage difficult feelings like grief.9 Children and youth have been shown to increase positive feelings by playing. 

For individuals with mental health disorders, playing video games can also be a healthy pastime that helps counteract negative self-talk, gain problem-solving skills, and see positive representations of others with mental health issues. Increasingly, video games are including heroes and other positive characters with mental health disorders instead of just villains.

Improved Focus

Playing video games may also improve focus and concentration. Just an hour of video game play has been shown to improve the brain’s ability to focus. This is true for a variety of games, including first-person shooter, simulation, and strategy games. 

Although experts aren’t sure how long the results last, a short video gaming session does appear to have short term benefits on students’ ability to focus.

Community & Online Friendships

Many gamers interact with friends virtually and use play time to develop and nurture online friendships as part of a virtual gaming community. Although not all gamer communities are created equal, players often find friendships with others they meet through video gaming and develop strong teamwork skills while working towards a common goal. 

Gaming Popularity During the COVID-19 Pandemic

During the COVID-19 pandemic, video games served as an outlet for many. As communities went into lockdown or practiced social distancing, people of all ages turned to video games to combat feelings of loneliness and isolation. An overwhelming majority of people who played video games during the pandemic say that they expect to continue to play.10 They report that video games were an effective stress reliever and offered a welcome distraction from the pandemic.

About the author

The editorial team at therapist.com works with the world’s leading clinical experts to bring you accessible, insightful information about mental health topics and trends.

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