Are Video Games And Depression Connected?

Medically reviewed by Dr. April Brewer, DBH, LPC
Updated April 23, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team

Playing video games can be an enjoyable—and even beneficial—activity, allowing gamers to develop their dexterity, problem-solving abilities, and even social skills. However, in some situations, the use of video games can become unhealthy. Research suggests that problematic video game use can have a negative impact on one’s mental health and possibly contribute to depressive symptoms. But what, exactly, are the connections between video games and depression? And how can we ensure gaming remains a healthy, beneficial activity? Below, we’re going to discuss how video games can impact our mental well-being and address ways of avoiding gaming-related depression.

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The links between video games and depression

Gaming is an increasingly popular pastime. According to a Pew Research Center poll, 43% of adults in the US play video games. Given the popularity of gaming, its potential mental health effects—both negative and positive—continue to be examined extensively.

Many people are concerned about the potential mental health impacts of video games, particularly when they are used excessively, or their content is inappropriate for certain users. This concern is common to  parents and others who are concerned about the amount of time that teenagers and younger children are spending playing video games.

Research suggests that video games may lead to symptoms of depressive disorders. For example, researchers in a recent systematic review—which included over 3,000 children in grades 3-8 who played video games—found a link between excessive gaming and depression in youth. They also found that children who spend a large amount of time playing video games had a higher risk of anxiety, lower school performance, low mood, and social phobias.

In another systematic review and meta-analysis, researchers determined that there was a positive correlation between excessive gaming and negative mental health outcomes. Problematic gaming behavior was found to be associated with an increased prevalence of depression, anxiety, ADHD, and obsessive-compulsive disorder, as well as reduced self-control, self-esteem, and school well-being.

There are a few different reasons why people believe that this connection exists. Some experts believe that these results arise because of personality differences. People who are more likely to play video games may have a harder time connecting with others in real life. They may also be motivated to search for more social interactions within video games as opposed to in-person interactions.

Another primary explanation for the link between depression and video games is an addiction to gaming, listed in the DSM-V as internet gaming disorder (IGD). There is thought to be a strong connection between IGD and depressive disorders. Many experts believe that excessive gaming can become a coping mechanism and that an individual who develops IGD may be using video games to alleviate psychological challenges. 

In addition to the possibility of addiction, many people are concerned about the content of video games. In a study of over 5,000 5th graders, researchers found that those who played violent video games for two hours or more per day experienced an increase in depressive symptoms. This is believed to correspond to the higher incidence of depression that is associated with exposure to violence through any kind of media. 

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While studies suggest that problematic gaming may play a role in the development of depression, there is also evidence that playing video games in moderation can improve mental health. The results of one systematic review show that gaming can alleviate symptoms of depression. 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.

Rumination can be a challenge for people who experience depression. Often, when someone is depressed, it's easy for them to get stuck in their own thoughts. They may avoid social interaction and continue to think about certain situations, memories, or unhelpful beliefs, which can create a cycle of negative beliefs. One way to stop these thought patterns is to distract oneself from them. And video games can provide such a distraction. 

The above 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 can have a positive impact on people who are struggling with depression and negative emotions, giving them needed mental stimulation. In this way, video games can help support mental health.

Depression treatment

Depression is a highly treatable mental illness. Approximately 80-90% of individuals respond favorably to treatment, which typically consists of medication, psychotherapy, or a combination of both. There are several different types of medication for depression, including selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), serotonin and norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors (SNRIs), monoamine oxidase inhibitors (MAOIs), and tricyclic antidepressants. Always consult with a healthcare professional prior to starting or stopping any medication.

Psychotherapy, or talk therapy, allows individuals with depression to identify the sources of their symptoms, develop personalized coping strategies, and address potential comorbidities. If you believe you’re living with depression, a mental health or medical professional can help you develop a personalized treatment plan. 

Coping strategies for depression

If you find that too much screen time on the computer or a gaming console is leading to depression, 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 and add in healthy activities. Consider utilizing the following self-help strategies when you want to alleviate depression.   

Journal

A journal can provide you with an outlet for your feelings and a way of better understanding the sources of depression. For example, if you want to see how gaming is impacting or causing depressive symptoms you’re experiencing, 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. 

Maintain a balanced diet

Research suggests that nutrition can play an important role in the management of depression. Diets that are high in refined carbohydrates, red meat, and sugar are thought to be associated with an increased risk of depression. Certain dietary patterns, however, may improve depressive symptoms. For example, the Mediterranean diet—which is rich in vegetables, fruits, healthy fats, lean meats, nuts, and legumes—has been shown to reduce the likelihood of depression.

Exercise

There is a proven association between positive mental health outcomes and physical activity. Exercise can be particularly helpful for those experiencing gaming addiction because it can provide an outlet for the desire to engage in an activity that uses one’s reflexes, coordination, and other skills that video games require. Additionally, exercise can improve depression by boosting mood, providing a distraction from intrusive thoughts, and alleviating physical health concerns that may contribute to depressive symptoms. Consider engaging in physical activity that gets you outdoors, such as biking, jogging, or hiking. 

Get plenty of sleep

Sleep and depression are thought to have a bidirectional relationship, meaning sleep disruptions can cause or worsen depressive symptoms, and depression can lead to poor sleep quality. Additionally, sleep disturbances may be exacerbated by late nights spent gaming. Developing a consistent sleep routine can be key to managing depression. To do this, try to go to bed and wake up at similar times each day. It can also help to develop a nighttime routine that helps you wind down and signals to your body that it’s time to rest. 

Want to know how gaming can impact your mental health?

Addressing depression with online therapy

Studies show that online therapy can be beneficial for people experiencing mental health challenges related to video game use. For example, in a systematic review examining the efficacy of online therapy for online behavioral addictions, which included 12 studies (the main focus of which was gaming), researchers found that participants experienced reductions in the severity, duration, and frequency of online addictive behaviors. The study also notes the ability of online therapy to circumvent common barriers to treatment, including costs, perceived stigma, and geographical limitations.

Online therapy can help you address mental health challenges that may be related to problematic gaming or other behavioral concerns. With an online therapy platform like BetterHelp, you can take advantage of a proclivity for technology by connecting with a therapist remotely, through video call, voice call, or in-app messaging. Your therapist can also help you find useful resources, such as informational articles about gaming addiction, depression, or similar topics. 

Takeaway

While playing video games can be enjoyable (and even productive), there is an established connection between negative mental health outcomes and problematic gaming. By being mindful of the way you game, you may be able to avoid the development or exacerbation of depression. If you think that playing video games could be affecting your mental well-being, consider working with a licensed therapist online. With the right guidance, you can address depression and play video games in a healthy way.
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