Are Video Games and Depression Connected?

Updated August 17, 2022 by BetterHelp Editorial Team

When it comes to video games and depression, there are contrasting views. Some believe that video game addiction can have a negative impact on your mental health, causing mental disorders, and others think they have the ability to help. So which is it? What if it were both?

Could Gaming Be Affecting Your Feelings And Relationships?

The Negative Side to Video Games and Depression

A common belief in society is that the more time people spend playing video games, there is a bigger chance that they will experience more depressive symptoms that are caused by excessive screen time playing high violence video games. This theory gets a lot of attention from parents and others that are worried about the amount of time that teenagers and younger children are spending playing video games.

What Studies Show

While there aren't a lot of studies to prove or disprove their theory, one recent study shows there might be a link between excessive gaming and depression in youth. This systematic review looked at over 3,000 children, who were not only boys, in grades third, fourth, seventh, and eighth, who played video games.

They tracked results over a two-year period of the impact that their video game usage seemed to have on their mental health, resulting in the kids showing more depressive symptoms than before they started to play video games. The study found that the children that spend a large amount of screen time to play video games had a higher risk of clinical depression, anxiety, lower school performance, low mood, and social phobias.

More research was done by looking at the Internet usage of Chinese young adults between the ages of 13 and 18-year-old found similar results. This study found that those students that spend excessive amounts of time on the Internet or twice as likely to have depressive symptoms within nine months. The study noted that most of their screen time spent on the internet was in gaming environments.

Are The Studies Right?

There are a few different reasons why people believe that this connection exists. Some people that use narrative reviews published by various psychiatric associations believe that the numbers from studies come out like this because children that are more likely to play video games are usually those that have a harder time connecting with other kids in real life and suffer from social isolation. The study found that these children who suffered from video game addiction had lower social competence and greater impulsivity, which is believed to be why they spent more time playing games.

However, while it looks like this connection between depression and video game addiction does exist, it's still hard to say exclusively that video games were the reason for the higher risk of depression and anxiety. It could be that these children had higher levels of depression and anxiety because of the lack of social skills that cause them to play more video games in the first place. So, it's really hard to say if video games are the cause of anxiety and depressive symptoms, or if it's more likely people, including children, spend time playing video games because they have social phobias, less interest in performing physical activity, or depression.

Another belief is that it's not that these children were being impacted by their video game addiction, but simply that mental health challenges were developing simultaneously. Meaning that the age of these children during the study just happened to be the same age that the children were starting to show signs of different mental health disorders for completely unrelated reasons.

What The Video Game Industry Thinks

As you can imagine online communities of the video game industry have spent time and money fighting back against these studies. They're working to prove that there is no direct correlation between computer games and depression. They call attention to a lot of the other factors that could come into play in these findings, as well as the positive mental health outcomes that can happen to someone when they play video games, improving their mental health.

Positive Connection Between Video Games and Depression

There's another side to the story as well. There was also a systematic review that showed a positive benefit to patients with depression who played games. This meta-analysis found that when patients were actively playing video games, they had more positive emotions, and the amount of time they spent ruminating was lower.

According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, the definition of ruminating is "to go over in the mind repeatedly and often casually or slowly".

Rumination is a big problem for people that experience depression and anxiety. Often times when someone is depressed it's easy for them to get stuck in their own thoughts. They avoid social interaction and continue to think about certain situations, scenarios, memories, or other things that are not beneficial to their life. However, when depressed, it is hard to stop these thoughts from coming unless you are actively trying to do so.

This study found that their time spent playing casual video games on their electronic devices was forcing their minds to focus on the task at hand instead of whatever thoughts were naturally coming into their heads. This has a positive impact on people that are struggling with depression and negative emotions, giving them needed mental stimulation. In this way, video games can help support mental health.

What Else Comes Into Play?

While it does seem evident that there are connections between video game playing and depression, it's not an open and shut case - more research is required.

Even with studies showing that children that play extended amounts of commercial video games have a higher risk of depression, anxiety, and gaming disorder, there are too many unknowns to make a clear connection. It could be that these children were already predisposed to depression. And, it could be that their environmental situations led to them becoming depressed.

And, while some studies have shown the benefits that gaming can have on those with depression, this is not something that’s true for everyone. While gaming may help some to stop ruminating, it may help others to avoid social interactions with other people, which would be a negative connection.

The most important thing to consider is the personal impact that video games are having on you or your children. Make sure that you are taking note of how your mental health is both before and after you spend time gaming. If you find that you are increasingly showing depressive symptoms it may be good for you to take time away from video games. However, if you are experiencing high levels of depression and can't seem to keep your mind under control, low violence video games could be what you need to shift your attention to something else and off of your mental health challenges.

Depression Symptoms To Watch Out For

Depression can look a lot of ways. If you're trying to see if the high screen time spent playing video games can have an impact on your mental health, then you need to understand what the depressive symptoms are.

Many people think that if someone is depressed, they are overwhelmingly sad. While this can be what depression is like for some people, it's not the case for everyone. Some people experience depression that feels empty and have no emotion at all, always in a low mood. Others have increasing levels of anger and irritability. And many people experience physical symptoms of depression as well. This can include digestive issues, headaches, cramping, inability to perform physical activity, and aches and pains. Other symptoms to watch for include a change in sleep and appetite.

If you want to see how gaming is impacting symptoms that you have, you could try keeping a log. Throughout the day see how your mood is as well as how you're feeling physically and mentally. If you track this several times throughout the day and over at least several days you may begin to see a connection for yourself. It could be that gaming is having a positive impact on you, or it could be that it's having a negative one.

What To Do If You're Depressed

If you are experiencing symptoms of depression, it's important that you seek treatment from mental health professionals. Depression is a very treatable mental illness, so there is no reason that you should endure any of your symptoms without getting help.

One of the most effective forms of treatment is therapy. An experienced therapist is going to be able to help you learn where your depression is coming from, and also learn what you can do to overcome it. There are many different techniques and strategies that you can learn that will help you deal with your depression.

Could Gaming Be Affecting Your Feelings And Relationships?

In order to meet with a therapist, you can choose to find one in your local area, or you can choose online therapy options. Online therapy allows you to get the mental health care from a professional therapist that you need from the comfort of your own home.

If you think that your screen time playing video games could be affecting your mental health, then it's important that you communicate that to your therapist. Or, if you're interested in seeing if gaming can help improve your depression, talk to your therapist about this as well. They will be able to provide you with some guidance and direction as well as what symptoms to watch to see if it is actually having a negative impact on you instead.

If you find that too much screen time playing on the computer or a gaming console is hurting you, it might not mean that you have to give up video games altogether. It just might mean that you need to learn how to limit screen time. It's very easy to fall into a virtual world to escape the world that you're living in. You can always try playing switching virtual games to traditional board games. But the best way to address problems that you're having in life is to face them head-on while getting help from a therapist if needed.

Below are commonly asked questions on this topic:

Are video games causing depression?

Can video games help depression?

Do video games affect your mental health?

What percent of gamers are depressed?

How many hours of video games are healthy for adults?

Why does video gaming help depression?

What video games are good for depression?

What are the signs of gaming disorder?

How does excessive gaming ruin your life?

What happens to your brain when you play too much video games?

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