Meditation calms the center of fear in your brain, causing the tonsil to shrink. It turns out that video games can do the same.
This is the good part. Here’s the bad: a researcher’s conservative estimate is that five million people in the United States have internet gambling disorder. These players show a loss of relationships, career opportunities, etc.
So, are video games good for your mental health? Are they bad for your brain? Or is it somewhere in between? We spoke to two scientific experts to find out.
Video games in numbers
In the United States, a young person will pass 10,000 hours on average playing online games before their 21st birthday. That’s almost the same time the average child in the United States spends in middle and high school – 10,080.
Ultimately, kids literally spend years of their lives online. (One year equals just under 9,000 hours.)
Children can be “virtuoso players”, researcher Jane mcgonigal said, citing Daniel Kahneman’s infamous theory that it takes 10,000 hours of laborious study master any skill. By proxy, they can also be educated in social resilience.
Why video games are good for your mental health
Working together to achieve a common goal can increase social resilience. Some of the most popular games are collaborative in nature: Minecraft, World of Warcraft, Final Fantasy, and other massively multiplayer online games (MMOs) can foster meaningful connections between players and provide purpose.
Games are also a low-stake outlet for people to let off steam when they are feeling frustrated with their school or work life. “To play therapy“even uses this quality as an advantage, harnessing digital play as a psychological tool to encourage people to open up to their therapist online.
To take SuperBetter, which McGonigal created after suffering a traumatic brain injury. A painful concussion left her motionless and isolated and she wanted to log into an online support system.
The game has given her an online community unrelated to her injuries – and she’s hoping SuperBetter can do the same for others. SuperBetter claims to help players “unlock their heroic potential” and “overcome difficult situations” as a group.
Video games can also fight isolation from a global lockdown marked by quarantines and virtual socializations. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the video game industry is booming.
Video games have seen a 73% sales growth in just a year, as people tune in to socialize and escape. Some players find virtual worlds can provide respite from everyday worries and help them cope better with seemingly impossible situations.
Why video games are bad for your mental health
However, there is a big caveat regarding the social and emotional benefits: any positive side effects are only related to moderate gambling habits. Consistent or excessive gameplay (more than 20 hours per week, but later) can lead to internet gambling disorder.
Kyle faust, a researcher at the University of Rhode Island, compares video game addiction to gaming among some gamers.
“Internet gambling disorder dates back to the earliest of arcade games,” says Faust. “The problem has grown exponentially due to more immersive and rewarding play structures.”
“Internet gambling disorder dates back to the earliest of arcade games. “
Sophisticated digital games and the sheer number of people playing it could make Internet gambling disorder “on its way to becoming a major public health problem,” he adds.
The mess is in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, United States Manual of Psychiatric Diagnostics. To be eligible for diagnosis, a person must exhibit five characteristics over a period of more than 12 months. These include emotional withdrawal, loss of interest in other activities, and play to escape negative moods.
Video games and escape
To understand the roots of breakout, we must first look at the amygdala. This almond-shaped region of the brain plays a major role in decision-making, processing, and emotional responses like fear.
The researchers found that pathological gamblers have less dense gray matter in the amygdala in separate studies comparing them to adult males who were not pathological gamblers and university students. In other words, video games can change mental pathways in the brains of frequent gamers – possible for the better.
Online games can be a powerful distraction from fear or anxiety, says Dr. Alok Kanojia. “Video games literally allow us to escape and suppress negative emotions.”
Kanojia is a professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School who studies video game addiction. He started a mental health startup called Healthy player after building a community of health-conscious gamers on Reddit and Twitch. His Twitch Channel of the same name has over half a million subscribers and broadcasts weekly videos on drug addiction, depression and prevention.
Video games, mental health and moderation
But relying on video games for the long haul can be dangerous, says Kanojia.
“Negative emotions are one of the most powerful teachers of the human brain. If a child once touches a hot stove, he or she learns never to touch it again. Therefore, since video games suppress our negative emotions, they also make it more difficult to learn from our mistakes.
Study suggests that video games help lower rates of depression – but only for those who play in moderation, without excess. Relationships can flourish online if a gamer is a moderate gamer.
Excess means any play for more than 20 hours per week, according to one longitudinal study over 3,000 children and adult gamers in India. The average number of hours played per week was 14 to 16 for young players.
“As video games suppress our negative emotions, they also make it harder to learn from our mistakes. “
In the life of pathological gamblers, loneliness increases and social competence decreases. Players who spend overtime online risk the decline of relationships or careers that already exist in their lives.
Adolescents with developing brains are also more vulnerable to the damaging effects of excessive gambling. An hour of gambling a day can bring tangible emotional and mental benefits, but real psychological damage begins to knock on doors with excessive gambling.
So, are video games good or bad for mental health?
Kyle Faust looks like they’re good in some situations. “While digital games can have fictional content, in the extreme, the consequences are real and deserve attention,” he wrote in a recent study.
However, Kanojia wouldn’t necessarily agree. He believes that healthy play can “help the Internet generation succeed.”
It’s hard to answer if a digital video game detox is worth it. The short answer is, it’s not black and white, but some things are unmistakably true:
- Gameplay is therapy for some. It can increase your social skills and mental resilience.
- Humans are social creatures who don’t exactly thrive in isolation. Playing online offers comfort to those who feel lonely.
- Escaping into a virtual world is not a healthy, long-term solution to dealing with negative emotions.
- Too much gameplay is like to excess of any vice – it can tear your social and emotional life apart if left unchecked.