Are Video Games and Depression Connected?

Updated February 15, 2023by 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 – potentially causing mental disorders -- while others think video games have the ability to improve mental health. So which is it? Can both assertions be true?

Are Video Games Helping Or Hurting Your Mental Health?

The Negative Side To Video Games And Depression

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

While there aren't a lot of studies to prove or disprove this 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 in grades 3-8 who played video games. Researchers tracked results over a two-year period of the impact that the participants’ 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 children who spend a large amount of screen time playing video games had a higher risk of clinical depression, anxiety, lower school performance, low mood, and social phobias.

In a systematic review and meta-analysis seeking to explore the relationship between excessive gaming and mental health outcomes, researchers determined a positive correlation between the two by analyzing 50 studies that met the inclusion criteria. Problematic gaming behavior was found to be associated with an increased prevalence of depression, anxiety, ADHD, and OCD, 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 people that use narrative reviews published by various psychiatric associations believe that the numbers from studies come out like this because children who are more likely to play video games are usually those who already have a harder time connecting with other kids in real life and experience social isolation. The aforementioned study also stated that the participants engaging in problematic video gaming behavior may be motivated to search for more social interactions within video games as opposed to in-person interactions.

While it looks like a connection between depression and video game addiction does exist, it's still hard to say exclusively that video games are 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 motivated 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. This means that the age of these children during the study may have just happened to be the same age that they were starting to show signs of different mental health disorders for unrelated reasons.

The Positive Connection Between Video Games And Depression

As you can imagine, online communities within 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 by calling 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.

There was 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.

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 may 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 who are struggling with depression and negative emotions, giving them needed mental stimulation. In this way, video games can help support mental health.

What Other Factors May Cause Depression?

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. It could also 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. Additionally, the positive feelings linked to excessive video gaming could stem from reward mechanisms inherent to many video games, which are designed to increase dopamine and influence a person to continue engaging in reward-seeking behaviors.

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 beneficial for shifting your attention to something else and off of your mental health challenges.

Depression Symptoms To Watch Out For

Depression can manifest in 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 it is important 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, often in a low mood. Others have increasing levels of anger or irritability. Many people experience physical symptoms of depression as well, with symptoms like digestive issues, headaches, cramping, inability to perform physical activity, and aches and pains. Other symptoms to watch for include abrupt changes 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 Feeling 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 what you can do to overcome it. There are many different techniques and strategies that you can learn that will help you cope with your depression.

Are Video Games Helping Or Hurting Your Mental Health?

In order to meet with a therapist, you can choose to find one in your local area, or you can explore 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, or anywhere there is a safe internet connection. You can also schedule appointments at times that are convenient for your schedule, which may not always be possible in face-to-face therapy (since practitioners often reserve a set hour each week for specific clients).

You may be encouraged to learn that online therapy has been proven effective in supporting people seeking support for addictions to things like video games and technology. In a systematic review of web-based treatments for online behavioral addictions, for example, researchers identified 12 studies with 15 intervention arms. The main focus of these interventions was gaming, followed by screen time/smartphone use, gambling, and pornography. Researchers concluded that online treatments for these addictions delivered using cognitive and behavioral change interventions were effective in the reduction of symptoms, duration, and frequency of online addictive behaviors. More research is needed to understand these interventions with regard to long-term efficacy.

Takeaway

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 a therapist or health professional. Or, if you're interested in seeing if gaming can help improve your depression, that’s something you can explore with a counselor, as well. They will be able to provide you with some guidance and direction as well as what symptoms to watch for to see if gaming is actually having a negative impact on you.

If you find that too much screen time 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 descend into a virtual world to escape the real world that you inhabit. You can always try switching from virtual games to traditional board games. Overall, the best way to address challenges that you're having in life is to face them head-on, while getting help from a therapist if needed. When you’re ready to take that step, BetterHelp will be here to support you.

Frequently Asked Questions

Are video games causing depression?

Can video games help depression?

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What percent of gamers are depressed?

How many hours of video games are healthy for adults?

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