The findings, to be published in the March issue of the journal Computers in Human Behavior, suggest while heavy gaming, particularly in boys, can be viewed as a warning signal for parents, not everyone who plays many hours a day is at risk for developing problems.
Some of the downsides of gaming, the researchers say, 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.
Researchers say the findings could inform organisations such as the World Health Organisation and the American Psychiatric Association that have proposed making Internet Gaming Disorder a condition on par with substance abuse and gambling addiction.
“While playing video games for four hours a day can be worrisome behaviour, not everyone who does so is at risk of developing symptoms of addiction or depression,” says study leader Michelle Colder Carras, PhD of the Department of Mental Health at the Bloomberg School. “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.”
Colder Carras and her colleagues analysed data from the annual Monitor Internet and Youth study, a school-based survey of nearly 10 000 teenagers across the Netherlands.
Researchers asked the teens about how often they play video games, use social media and instant messaging, and about their friendships. The survey also had the teens answer questions about addictive behaviours, including whether they feel they can stop gaming if they want to and get irritable if not playing.
While only Dutch teens participated, Colder Carras and her colleagues believe the responses would be similar in teens elsewhere.
The researchers focused on heavy gamers who were also frequently online, and those who were not.
They found that video game addiction depends not only on video game play but also on concurrent levels of online communication, and that those who were socially active online reported fewer symptoms of game addiction.
Heavy gamers had 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.
Colder Carras said 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. But it shouldn’t be assumed that all those adolescents have a gaming-related disorder that needs treating. Parents and clinicians need to look at the underlying reasons why the teens play so many 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,” she says.
“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.”
A key, she says, is looking for the reasons why the teen spends so many hours behind a console or computer. Is it because the teen is too depressed to cope with the real world and uses gaming as an attempt to stave off loneliness?
Or are games a way to socialise and bond with others, either in person or through interactive online games?
Colder Carras says that while older teens can usually recognise when their use of the internet is problematic, younger ones may need help to put everything into perspective, and tools on how to handle potential gaming-related issues that may arise. - Newswise