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The Effect of Gaming on Mental Health

Through the decades, video games have been blamed for a wide range of social ills, including (but by no means limited to) childhood obesity, poor performance and problematic behavior in school, and elevated rates of mass violence. Have any of these accusations proved to be accurate? How do video games affect mental health – and is there actually a pressing need to protect people from their influence?

How Do Video Games Affect Mental Health?

Dramatic claims about the negative impact of video games make for eye-catching headlines, while peer-reviewed studies that explore how do video games affect mental health typically attract far less attention. This can make it extremely difficult for non-experts to determine exactly what level of risk these games pose to children, adolescents, and adults.

The truth about the relationship between video games and mental health is too complex to be comprehensively covered in a single blog post. But we’re going to do our best to take an unbiased look at both sides of this debate, with the goal of helping you understand both the potential mental health benefits and the possible psychological drawbacks of video games.

Negative Effects of Video Games on Mental Health

As we alluded to at the outset of this post, public discussions about how do video games affect mental health or other aspects of our lives have historically seemed to skew toward the negative. 

Of course, there were also times in the U.S. when comic books and pinball machines were widely and loudly accused of having a harmful impact on young people. So, are claims about the negative impact of video games backed by data, or are they simply the continuation of a trend that began with efforts to ban comic books in the 1940s?

Here’s what a few experts have said:

  • In a 2013 report, the American Psychiatric Association (APA) stated that a preoccupation with video games can cause “clinically significant impairment or distress,” with potential outcomes including diminished performance in school or at work, as well as withdrawal-like symptoms when a person is prevented from gaming.
  • A 2012 review in the Journal of Behavioral Addictions found that young German patients who were treated for pathological online gaming exhibited symptoms of anxiety, depression, and other types of psychological distress.
  • A 2019 study in the journal Frontiers in Psychiatry found that some video games can promote stress responses and negative emotions such as fear, frustration, anger, and anxiety. That study also determined that other video game scenarios can be sources of positive emotions such as excitement, hope, and appreciation.
  • In a 2020 article on the Harvard Health Publishing website, Peter Grinspoon, MD, wrote that gaming has been linked with “sleep deprivation, insomnia and circadian rhythm disorders, depression, aggression, and anxiety,” though he noted that additional research is necessary to verity these findings. 

Positive Effects of Video Games on Mental Health

The researchers that we cited in the previous section raise legitimate concerns about how do video games affect mental health. But they aren’t the only experts who have explored this topic. Here are a few studies on the potential mental health benefits of gaming:

  • The authors of a 2014 review in Frontiers in Psychiatry reported that studies have associated moderate video gaming with emotional stability, reduced emotional disturbances, skill acquisition, stress reduction, and an increased sense of happiness. Their research, the authors wrote, “would suggest that videogame play has the potential to enhance life satisfaction and improve individual player’s mental well-being.”
  • In June 2021, the journal JMIR Serious Games published a review that highlighted the ability of commercial video games to alleviate symptoms of anxiety disorders and depressive disorders. Citing previous research, the authors of this study noted that video games can promote emotion regulation, motivation, and social connection, while reducing levels of stress, rumination, and negative emotions. 
  • According to a report on the website of the United Nations Regional Information Center for Western Europe (UNRIC), a survey of more then 13,000 gamers from 12 nations found that the most common self-reported benefits of playing video games included improved creativity, refined problem-solving skills, stress relief, and enhanced cognitive functioning.

Can You Become Addicted to Video Games?

When researching the potential negative mental health effects of video games, it is common to encounter terms such as compulsion, preoccupation, and obsession. 

Does this mean that a person can actually become addicted to video games? Experts have not yet reached a consensus on this topic.

When the eleventh revision of the International Classification of Disease (ICD-11) was published in 2018, it included an entry for gaming disorder. Characteristics of this disorder include “impaired control over gaming, increasing priority given to gaming … and continuation or escalation of gaming despite the occurrence of negative consequences.”

In the fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), Internet gaming disorder is included in the “Conditions for Further Study” section near the end of the book. This means that the American Psychiatric Association, which publishes the DSM, has not yet established official criteria for a diagnosis of this disorder.

However, the DSM-5 does include proposed criteria for internet gaming disorder, such as:

  • Preoccupation with Internet games
  • Gaming becomes the dominant activity in daily life
  • Anxiety, irritability, or sadness when unable to play the games
  • Needing to spend greater amounts of time gaming 
  • Losing interest in hobbies or other important activities due to gaming
  • Deceiving family members or others about the amount of time spent playing Internet games
  • Using games to escape or ease negative feelings such as guilt, anxiety, or helplessness
  • Jeopardizing a relationship, job, or educational opportunity because of gaming
  • Continuing to play Internet games even after knowingly experiencing psychosocial problems as a result of this behavior

While video game addiction may not yet be an “official” disorder in the U.S., someone who exhibits symptoms such as the ones listed above may need professional help to prevent their compulsive behavior from inflicting lasting harm on their mental well-being and overall quality of life.

Find Mental Health Treatment in Nashville

If someone in your life has incurred psychological harm as a result of compulsive gaming – or if you believe that they are using gaming to cope with anxiety, depression, or another type of mental illness – Arbor Wellness is here to help. 

Our mental health treatment center in Nashville, Tennessee, is a safe and welcoming place where patients receive focused care and compassionate support from a team of highly skilled professionals. We offer a full continuum of customized care, including residential treatment, a partial hospitalization program (PHP), an intensive outpatient program (IOP), and specialized programming for military veterans and young adults.

To learn more or to schedule a free assessment, please visit our Admissions page or call us today.