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Are video games actually bad for you?

Reviewed by Brooks Baer, LCPC, CMHP

Young white male gamer holds up joystick

For many years, video games have been criticized for creating or worsening mental health issues. Some studies do suggest that playing video games can contribute to conditions such as depression, anxiety, and aggressive behavior.1 

Mental health benefits of video games

That said, there’s much more nuance to the relationship between video games and mental health, and we still have a lot to learn about the effects of gaming. Conversation tends to focus on the downsides, but research has also shown that playing video games can benefit your mental health.

Relaxation, mood regulation, focus, and well-being

One long-term study from 2013 found that playing simple games can help a player improve their mood, relax, reduce their anxiety, and manage difficult feelings like grief.2 Another study found that playing nonviolent puzzle games for 30 minutes a day could help lessen symptoms of anxiety and clinical depression, particularly in older adults.3 An additional study showed that an hour spent playing a popular multiplayer battle game improved players’ ability to focus, at least temporarily.4 Finally, a 2021 study from Oxford University showed that people who enjoyed long sessions of playing nonviolent games were likelier to report positive well-being.5

Community and online friendships

Many gamers interact with friends virtually and use their play time to develop and nurture online friendships as part of a gaming community. Not all gaming communities are created equal, but players often find friends through gaming and develop strong teamwork skills while working toward a common goal.

Gaming popularity during the COVID-19 pandemic

When the world went into pandemic lockdown and began to practice social distancing, people of all ages turned to video games to relieve stress and 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.6

Are video games bad for your mental health?

For many people, gaming is a positive activity that offers stress relief, distraction, and other mental health benefits. In some cases, though, video games can harm your mental health or make an existing mental health disorder worse. People with unaddressed mental health concerns are at the highest risk for negative effects from gaming.

Video games and addiction

One of the most common concerns about video gaming is the perceived risk of addiction. To medical professionals, video game addiction is known as “gaming disorder” or “internet gaming disorder.”7, 8 Researchers are still trying to understand this disorder and its addictive tendencies, including what causes it, who’s most at risk, and whether it can be classified as a true addiction.

Most people who game won’t develop a disorder or an addiction, but a small group of people, estimated at 1 to 3% of the general population, may be at risk.9 This risk may be higher among people who:

  • Play video games to deal with stress of escape from reality
  • Want to feel a sense of accomplishment or achievement
  • Enjoy the social aspect of video games by playing with friends or strangers
  • Struggle with existing mental health problems, such as anxiety, depression, low self-esteem, or loneliness

A long-term study published in 2020 found that most people play without long-term damage or negative effects, but approximately 10% of gamers showed “addiction-like” symptoms: They spent excessive time playing video games, they had trouble stopping, and their game play got in the way of healthy functioning.10

How much gaming is too much?

Many health care professionals define gaming as “excessive” when it starts interfering with sleep, school, employment, exercise, socializing, or other daily activities.

Experts recommend that children and teens spend fewer than two hours a day on screen time, including video games. For adults, playing video games for more than five hours per day can signal a problem. Regardless of your age, if video games are disrupting your daily life or causing other negative effects, you should try to reduce your gaming time.

Impacts of excessive gaming

Spending too much time gaming can have negative effects on your mental and physical health. It’s been associated with conditions including depression, anxiety, insomnia, and sleep deprivation.11 Some studies also suggest that violent video game content can increase players’ aggressive thoughts, feelings, and behaviors, although this correlation is still under discussion.12

Signs of excessive gaming

Signs that you may be gaming too much include:

  • Preoccupation with gaming
  • Feeling sad, anxious, or irritable when you can’t play
  • Needing to spend more and more time playing
  • Being unable to stop or cut down on playing, even when it causes problems
  • Withdrawal from other activities and relationships
  • Lying about the amount of time you spend gaming
  • Playing video games to relieve negative feelings
  • Performance getting worse at school or work

How to tell if you have a video game addiction

If you notice signs of excessive gaming in yourself or someone you love, it’s time to look for help. A mental health professional can determine whether your gaming habits fit the criteria for a gaming disorder and help you develop a treatment plan to change them. Individual therapy, group therapy, and medication have all been successful in treating other types of addiction and may also help people who game too much.

In some cases, excessive gaming can be a sign of another underlying mental health condition, like anxiety or depression. Visit our therapist directory to find a licensed provider in your area who can help you take back control of your gaming habits.

How to set healthy video game limits

Experts agree that healthy video game limits benefit all age groups. 

  • Set time limits: Create screen and video game time limits for children and teens. A family media plan can help kids, teens, and adults enjoy video games and other media in a healthy way.13
  • Find alternatives to violent games: If your selection of games includes a lot of violent content, look for less violent alternatives.
  • Play together: If you have young kids or teens, make gaming a family affair so you can monitor them during play. You might also consider playing with friends so gaming becomes more social.
  • Encourage other interests: Children, teens, and adults all benefit when they balance gaming with other interests and hobbies.

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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