Teens who are considered heavy gamers — those who regularly play videogames for more than four hours a day — often suffer from symptoms of depression. However, a new study led by Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health shows that high-quality friendships, whether in real life or online, tend to mitigate game-related depression in these teens.
The findings, published in the journal Computers in Human Behavior, suggest that although heavy gaming, particularly in boys, can be seen as a risk factor for depression, not everyone who plays for several hours a day is at risk for developing emotional problems.
In fact, some of the downsides of gaming, such as social withdrawal, may be balanced out in those who are socially engaged either online or in real life with friends. In fact, the researchers say, boys with high-quality friendships appear immune from the depression associated with heavy use of video games.
“Our findings open up the idea that maybe playing a lot of video games can be part of having an active social life. Instead of being concerned about the game playing, we should focus on those who also lack a social life or have other problems,” says study leader Michelle Colder Carras, Ph.D., a post-doctoral researcher in the Department of Mental Health at the Bloomberg School.
“Rather than seeing a lot of video game playing and worrying that this reflects gaming-related problems, parents and clinicians should figure out whether these teens also have high-quality friendships. It could just be that they have good friends who they like to hang out and play video games with. That is probably not a worrisome equation.”
According to the researchers, the new findings could inform organizations such as the World Health Organization and the American Psychiatric Association that have proposed making Internet Gaming Disorder a condition that would be on par with disorders relating to substance abuse and pathological gambling.
“While playing video games for four hours a day can be worrisome behavior, not everyone who does so is at risk of developing symptoms of addiction or depression,” says Colder Carras. “If these adolescents are sitting around playing games together with their friends or chatting regularly with their friends online as they play, this could be part of a perfectly normal developmental pattern. We shouldn’t assume all of them have a problem.”
For the study, the researchers analyzed 2009-2012 data from the annual Monitor Internet and Youth study, a school-based survey of nearly 10,000 teenagers across the Netherlands. The teens reported how often they played video games, used social media, and instant messaging, and discussed their friendships. The teens also answered questions about addictive behaviors, including whether they felt like they could stop gaming if they wanted to and whether they would get irritable when not playing.
The findings show that symptoms of video game addiction depend not only on video game play but also on concurrent levels of online communication and that those who are socially active online report fewer symptoms of game addiction.
All heavy gamers tended to have more depressive symptoms, but boys who were not very social online showed more loneliness and anxiety, regardless of the quality of their friendships. Girls who gamed extensively but were also very active in online social settings had less loneliness and social anxiety but also lower self-esteem.
Indeed, most of the adolescents who reported playing video games for four or more hours a day did report depressive symptoms, possibly reflecting problems that need treatment, says Carras. But it shouldn’t be assumed that all those teens have a gaming-related disorder that requires treatment. Parents and clinicians need to look at the underlying reasons for why the teens play so many video games.