New study links video-game “addiction,” depression

Photo by Flickr user Rebecca Pollard.

In a new study from the American Academy of Pediatrics, researchers say they’ve found a correlation between kids who are “addicted” to video games and other issues, such as being socially awkward and suffering from depression. A variety of news outlets have reported on the findings, including this piece from Reuters.

In the 2-year study of more than 3,000 school children in Singapore, researchers found nearly one in ten were video game “addicts,” and most were stuck with the problem.

While these kids were more likely to have behavioral problems to begin with, excessive gaming appeared to cause additional mental woes.

“When children became addicted, their depression, anxiety, and social phobias got worse, and their grades dropped,” said Douglas A. Gentile, who runs the Media Research Lab at Iowa State University in Ames and worked on the study.

“When they stopped being addicted, their depression, anxiety, and social phobias got better.”

According to the study itself, video-game addiction can be measured similarly to other kinds of addiction — in fact, researchers used the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual parameters for gambling addiction to measure behavior they considered addictive among gamers. Interestingly, it takes a certain amount of pre-existing psychological stuff to make someone more prone to video-game addiction: “Youths who are more impulsive, have lower social competence and empathy, and have poorer emotional regulation skills are more likely to become pathological gamers.” In other words, too much gaming doesn’t cause these problems. It’s the other way around.

Researchers also found that “although children who are depressed may retreat into gaming, the gaming increases the depression, and vice versa.” Actually, the study doesn’t show — for certain — that the gaming itself caused the increase in depression; it only shows that kids got more depressed during the same period they were also addicted to video games. Isn’t it possible that the trappings of addiction were the more likely culprit than the gaming itself? Maybe if these kids were baking cookies 5 hours a day, or doing homework 5 hours a day, or playing Candyland 5 hours a day, we’d see the same results. Has anyone studied those activities?

There’s no evidence here that the games themselves exacerbated these kids’ mental state. Given that they were already emotionally troubled before they came to video games, it’s entirely possible that these kids would have developed depression anyway. The fact that those who quit being addicted to video games felt better emotionally suggests that they were making overall psychological improvements, not just in the realm of gaming, and that seems like it would lift depression as well.

When journalists report on studies like these, they often play up the sexiest angle they can. They know, for example, parents are worried about their kids, so a study like this can catch parents’ eyes and get them reading. Reuters decided to top off its piece with the headline, “Do video games fuel mental health problems?” Instead of exploring the correlation between game addiction and depression, the headline implies that game addiction is causing it. These are not the same thing and it’s dangerous to mix them up.

Even Gentile, in a similar study he conducted in 2009, makes this danger abundantly clear in his “discussion” section:

The primary limitation of this study is its correlational nature. It does not provide evidence for the possible causal relations among the variables studied. It is certainly possible that pathological gaming causes poor school performance, and so forth, but it is equally likely that children who have trouble at school seek to play games to experience feelings of mastery, or that attention problems cause both poor school performance and an attraction to games. (Emphasis mine.)

In other words, the games may be providing a refuge for kids who are struggling in school, both socially and academically.

In college I heard this phrase repeatedly: correlation is not causation. More reporters, and more of their readers, need to keep this in mind.

There are a couple of other things worth noting about the Gentile/AAP study in the news this week. One is that Gentile is a researcher who focuses exclusively on media influences and children. Another is that, to date, not one of Gentile’s studies has found media to have a beneficial influence on kids, which implies a fairly strong bias in his work. A third is that the AAP, in 2000, issued a statement on violent media and youth claiming that such media desensitizes children to violence and “may lead to real-life violence,” claims which have since been disproven. It’s worth it to take their latest findings with a grain of salt, as well.

Gamers, did any of you get to a point where you felt like you were addicted to gaming? Were you able to cut back or even stop? While you were in your addictive phase, did you become depressed? Did you feel like gaming was the cause of your depression — and if not, what was the cause? Did cutting back on gaming improve your mood?

Parents, have you seen anything in your game-playing teens to suggest Gentile’s findings are accurate? Has your teen ever become addicted to video games? If so, how did you handle it?


11 responses to “New study links video-game “addiction,” depression

  1. You know, to be perfectly honest, I have been addicted to games off and on during my life. Back in college and into my early post-college years, I went through phases where I played a text-based online role-playing game incessantly. It never got so bad that I actually cut class or missed work. I did end up spending a lot of money on the game, though (this was when there were hourly fees for ISPs and premium content), lost sleep, put off seeing friends, and did the bare minimum for work and school.

    Also, I’ve had phases on game addiction on Facebook, though far briefer. But that, too, has affected other aspects of my life, such as focusing on work, relationships, etc. But it could just as likely be TV, movies, or other forms of, shall we say, passive entertainment that engages me.

    I have suffered from depression during my life. I would say it is not a cause of gaming but other factors. Gaming can be an escape, I think, from depression or other hardships; that is, for avoidance purposes.

    Also, I’m sure I’ve felt guilty or empty after “wasting” a lot of time on games when I felt I could or should have been using my time more constructively.

    So my overall thought here is video games can be incredibly addicting — as can plenty of other forms of entertainment and other activities. There are people addicted to chess, Scrabble, watching videos as well as exercise, eating, etc. Those activities seem to fill a void in a person’s life, and they make it difficult to climb out of a rut. But they aren’t the cause.

    • Thanks for this. My sense, having known many gamers — some of whom were definitely addicted — is that the depression and the gaming addictions are separate but, as this study’s researcher would say, “comorbid.” I think there’s something else likely instigating both of them, not the one causing the other.

  2. I’ve definitely had periods in my life where I did a lot more gaming than was good for me, honestly. Mostly these were non-violent text-based MUD/MUCK/MOO type games, incidentally. My feeling, looking back, is that the game was something I used to escape from emotions I couldn’t deal with, not that they were the cause of these emotions. As a coping strategy it’s honestly a pretty sucky one – it certainly did nothing to address the problem – but on the other hand it didn’t exacerbate the problem and it didn’t really cause any knock-on problems for me. Although I cut a lot of classes to play games, I found academia easy so I was still on honours rolls etc. – I suspect that if academic failure (or failure in any major life area) had been a result of my over-use of any emotional escape method (gaming, alcohol, drugs, sex, whatever) that a downward spiral of catastrophe would have been much more likely to result.

    I think I was very lucky that my escape/coping strategy didn’t cause its own problems, so eventually when the underlying problems resolved the gaming just naturally stopped because I didn’t need it – I started to find it boring and just stopped playing. Fifteen years later I have better coping strategies and haven’t had anything similar happen again.

    So basically I think game over-use for many/most people is a symptom first and foremost. Like any coping/escape strategy, it can have knock-on effects which then cause their own problems… but I suspect the knock-on effects from game over-use are pretty minor compared to the ones you get from most escape strategies (think: sex, drugs, alcohol, gambling). That doesn’t mean that I think it should be ignored though – it’s still a signal that something pretty major is going wrong in that person’s life and that person should be offered help to identify and deal with that underlying problem.


    • I agree, any extreme amount of gaming, whether the player is “addicted” or not, is something worth paying attention to. Not for its own sake but because it may mean something else is going on.

  3. The modern world provides a lot of things to be addicted to, and, as January pointed out, the effects of gaming addiction are comparatively benign (both on the user and on the community). But the vast majority of gamers don’t become addicted (as opposed, for example, to heroin users), so it would appear that the major factors in the addiction might be located in the gamers not in the games. I thought Ted’s point was important, that for him it happened to be games, but if not it likely would have been something else.

    I agree, as we were saying earlier about music and the occult and violence, that correlation is not causation. Causation has to be proved (and can be more complex than simply “A causes B”).

    I’ve never been a gamer (I’ve tried a few different types, including the MUD/MOO ones, but none caught on with me). I don’t think this is evidence of mental stability (I’ve suffered from depression), but it might be primarily a generational difference (I expect most game addicts are younger than I am).

    • I think you make a good point, and one I was thinking about earlier tonight. Not everyone who tries heroin gets addicted to it, but some do — and in part because heroin is a drug that influences brain chemistry. It does something physical. You can say that games do something physical to (and they do), but it’s much less tangible. Games are not psychoactive substances, is what I’m saying, so your point that “the major factors in the addiction might be located in the gamers not in the games” is apt. I think the researchers were smart to compare videogame addiction to something like gambling addiction.

  4. Pingback: Congressman wants warning labels on violent video games | Backward Messages

  5. Pingback: Video games don’t make kids suicidal — but watch for signs of addiction | Backward Messages

  6. Pingback: Gentile: video games aren’t all good or all bad for kids. It’s much more complicated. | Backward Messages

  7. The story is incorrect that Gentile hasn’t published studies on the benefits of video games – he has published at least two. One shows that laparoscopic surgeons who play video games do better at advanced surgical skills, and one shows that playing prosocial games increases helpful and cooperative behaviors. It seems more like this reporter may be biased…

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