The positive and negative
effects of daily gaming are small, and indicate that broader social
issues are responsible for both.
This is the unusually balanced conclusion of a study into the
psychosocial adjustment of children and teenagers, as relates to
video gaming. Given that 97 percent of teenagers play video games, it’s about time.
Excessive gaming has been blamed for everything from antisocial
behaviour to suicide, by parents, psychologists or the judicial system. But Andrew Przybylski, a research fellow at
the Oxford Internet Institute, has taken survey data from almost
5,000 10-15-year-olds in the UK to assess the potential impacts of
regular gaming, and concluded in the journal Pediatrics
that “both the broad fears and hopes about gaming may be
exaggerated”. In spite of this, the good news is that playing less
than an hour a day can be an indicator of a more well-adjusted
teenager or child.
“Compared with factors shown to have robust and enduring effects
on child well-being such as family functioning, social dynamics at
school and material deprivations, the current study suggests the
influences of electronic gaming, for good or ill, are not
practically significant,” the study reads.
“I think this research suggests that thinking about games in
‘dose-response’ terms may be inaccurate,” Przybylski told
Wired.co.uk. “The social environment that surrounds gaming, the
motives for play, who is playing etc. may be far more consequential
than the amount played.”
Przybylski took the data from the Understanding Society
Household Longitudinal Study, a massive study ongoing since 2009
that involves interviews (in paper and in person) with people from
40,000 UK households. The nearly 5,000 pool of candidates was split
evenly between genders. The children and teenagers had undergone
psychosocial adjustment assessments and reported how many hours a
day they spent playing electronic games. The questionnaire covered
things like attention span, empathy and hyperactivity — key,
considering gaming has been blamed for teaching apathy and
The study found: “Low engagement was associated with higher life
satisfaction and prosocial behaviour and lower externalising and
internalising problems, whereas the opposite was found for high
levels of play. No effects were observed for moderate play levels
when compared with non-players.” Low engagement was considered
anything under an hour a day, while high levels of play constituted
three hours or more.
Anything under an hour correlated with better social skills and
more content kids that experienced fewer emotional problems or
hyperactivity. The results found, conversely, that those who spend
more than half their free time gaming suffered in these areas.
However, key to the report’s conclusion is the fact that when
comparing non-gamers with those playing at moderate levels (one to
three hours) the differences were negligible. So although there
could be some perceived negative or positive impacts, it appears to
have more to do with external contributory factors. For example, a
teenager might be playing all the time because they do not have the
opportunities, social or otherwise, afforded to others. They are
missing out, not necessarily because they are gaming, but because
the opportunities are not accessible to them.
It’s the motives of why a child or teenager is playing and why
they are playing for a certain period, that needs to be
Why then, with this gap still in our knowledge, are people so
quick to jump to the potential negative consequences of gaming?
“I think this is a natural human reaction and one that should be
thoroughly investigated,” says Przybylski. “The underlying
mechanisms linking any new form of entertainment to its effects
(good or bad) should be comprehensively examined.
“In many ways games are a new form of entertainment and a large
portion of the population doesn’t have experience with them.
Without this hands on experience it’s easy to think the best (or
the worst) of games. There are a range of articles that extol
benefits and detriments of electronic games but few that aim to
look at these trends in a broader perspective.”
Past studies, the Pediatrics paper argues, have
suggested time limits on gaming — but with no empirical research
to justify it.
Although Przybylski concedes that the positive impacts were
minor, he says there is a case for researching how gaming could be
used to foster “soft skills”, i.e. the Kerbal Space Program teaches
some elements of what goes into engineering a space program.
He plans on following up the study by asking parents, teachers,
and young people about their engagement with games and
psychological functioning. “Doing this should let me understand the
broader world that surrounds the effects games may have. Second,
I’m modelling young people over time to disentangle the causes and
consequences of different levels of game engagement. Looking at the
effects of games in a temporal context may shed light on a number
of topics that haven’t been well studied.”