Boys who regularly played video games at age 11 were less likely to develop depressive symptoms three years later, finds a new study led by a University College London researcher.
The findings published in Psychological Medicine demonstrated that boys who played video games most days had 24% fewer depressive symptoms three years later, than boys who played video games less than once a month.
This effect was only significant among boys with low physical activity levels, so researchers assert this might suggest that less active boys could derive more enjoyment and social interaction from video games.
While their study cannot confirm if the relationship is causal, the researchers say there are some positive aspects of video games which could support mental health, such as problem-solving, and social, cooperative and engaging elements.
“While we cannot confirm whether playing video games actually improves mental health, it didn’t appear harmful in our study and may have some benefits,” said lead author, PhD student Aaron Kandola. “Particularly during the pandemic, video games have been an important social platform for young people.”
“Screens allow us to engage in a wide range of activities. Guidelines and recommendations about screen time should be based on our understanding of how these different activities might influence mental health and whether that influence is meaningful,”
Kandola previously led studies finding that sedentary behavior (sitting still) appeared to increase the risk of depression and anxiety in adolescents.
To gain more insight into what drives that relationship, he and colleagues chose to investigate screen time as it is responsible for much of sedentary behavior in adolescents. Other studies have found mixed results, and many did not differentiate between different types of screen time, compare between genders, or follow such a large group of young people over multiple years.
The research team from UCL, Karolinska Institutet in Sweden, and the Baker Heart and Diabetes Institute in Australia, reviewed data from 11,341 adolescents who are part of the Millennium Cohort Study, a nationally representative sample of young people who have been involved in research since they were born in the UK in 2000–2002.
The study participants had all answered questions about their time spent on social media, playing video games, or using the internet, at age 11, and also answered questions about depressive symptoms, such as low mood, loss of pleasure and poor concentration, at age 14. The clinical questionnaire measures depressive symptoms and their severity on a spectrum, rather than providing a clinical diagnosis.
In the analysis, the research team accounted for other factors that might have explained the results, such as socioeconomic status, physical activity levels, reports of bullying, and prior emotional symptoms.
There may also be other explanations for the link between video games and depression, such as differences in social contact or parenting styles, which the researchers did not have data for.
“We need to reduce how much time children – and adults – spend sitting down, for their physical and mental health, but that doesn’t mean that screen use is inherently harmful.” adds Kandola.
Senior author Dr Mats Hallgren from Karolinska has conducted other studies in adults finding that mentally-active types of screen time, such as playing video games or working at a computer, might not affect depression risk in the way that more passive forms of screen time, like looking at social media, appear to do.
“The relationship between screen time and mental health is complex, and we still need more research to help understand it,” said Hallgren.
But, any initiatives to reduce young people’s screen time should be “targeted and nuanced,” he said. “Our research points to possible benefits of screen time; however, we should still encourage young people to be physically active and to break up extended periods of sitting with light physical activity.”