How Do Video Games Affect Children’s Mental Health?

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By now, you might think we can categorically answer the questions of whether or not video games are good or bad for developing minds, and whether they make children more or less likely to be violent. These have been hot topics since the 90s, after all, and new studies one games and violence make headlines every few months. If you spend a lot of time in gaming circles, you’d be forgiven for thinking the question was solved long ago–games are fine, we’re fine, it’s all good.

Or maybe not.

In this thoroughly researched piece by Rich Stanton for The Guardian, we discover that while there have been many studies and many headlines on the topic, we can actually draw startlingly few conclusions:

“There have been 25 years of research in this area and, for the most part, it’s not very good research,” says [Dr Peter Etchells]. “Particularly the experimental side. It’s a real missed opportunity, because there’s so much stuff about this in the media and we really don’t have a handle on it, and it would be good to have a handle on it so we could maybe get a final say at some point – either no, games are not an issue or, look, games are an issue but in these populations in these situations and it’s these games specifically. We can’t say anything even close to that at the minute.”

It’s worth remembering that part of the problem is the reluctance of funding bodies to support researchers in this area – it’s surprising to say the least that a study of this importance had to be undertaken by the researchers in their spare time. What video games research needs is more high-quality work in the field, because the questions are not impossible to answer. “The dataset we used is open and available,” says Etchells. “What I’d like to see happen in this area is people doing more open science, making their data available to other researchers. Just so we can start getting it right! Because there’s so much stuff that’s not right out there.”


Etchells is co-author of ‘Prospective Investigation of Video Game Use in Children and Subsequent Conduct Disorder and Depression Using Data from the Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children’, published earlier this year. His team examined the data from a longitudinal survey of about 14,500 children born in the early 90s. They found links between violent video games and conduct disorder but caution that those links are not nearly as strong as some studies have made them out to be.

Another paper published this year in Social Psychiatry and Psychiatric Epidemiology looks at high rates of video game use in young children and associations with performance in school, mental health, and social skills. As reported by ZME Science, the results were strikingly positive:

After adjusting for subject’s age, gender and number of siblings, researchers found that children who engaged in heavy video game use had 75% more chance of showing a higher level of intellectual functioning than their counterparts. They also had 88% more chance of achieving a higher overall level of school performance. More time spent playing was also associated with less social problems with their peers.


The study also found no association between self-reported mental health problems and video game use.

Again, though, these results aren’t ironclad. The study was large, with participants from six European countries, but as with all the data so far, further research is needed. Until funding becomes more available for that research, we will continue to have more questions than answers.

[The Guardian, ZME Science]