Depression in Teens Associated With Excessive Video Gaming May Be Mitigated by Strong Friendships


In a new study led by Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health researchers, it is suggested that teenagers who play video games for more than four hours a day suffer from symptoms of depression. The study does however also find that repeated use of instant messaging and social media may alleviate symptoms of game addiction in those teens.

The results of the study suggest that while heavy gaming (online gaming in the US is growing rapidly), can be seen as a warning signal for parents, especially where boys are involved, not everyone who plays many hours a day is at risk of increased problems that are gaming related. Researchers say that some of the problems associated with gaming may be alleviated in teens who are socially engaged, whether this engagement takes place online or in real life with friends. The researchers also point out that those boys with high quality friendships appear insusceptible to the depression associated with heavy use of video games.

Researchers believe that the findings could inform organizations such as the American Psychiatric Association and the World Health Organization. Both these organizations have suggested making Internet Gaming Disorder a condition that would be equivalent to disorders relating to pathological gambling and substance abuse.

Michelle Colder Carras, PhD, a post-doctoral researcher in the Department of Mental Health at the Bloomberg School and study leader, noted that although playing video games for four hours a day could certainly be cause for concern, not everyone who does so risks developing symptoms of depression or addiction. If youngsters are sitting around playing games with their friends, or chatting with their friends online regularly as they play, this could be perfectly normal developmental behavior. We simply can’t assume that all of them have a problem.

Data spanning from 2009 to 2012 and taken from the annual Monitor Internet and Youth study, a school-based survey of nearly 10,000 teenagers across the Netherlands, was analyzed by Colder Carras and her colleagues. The teens were asked about how often they use instant messaging and social media, play video games, and about their friendships. The teens also had to answer questions about addictive behaviors, including whether they get irritable if they’re not playing and whether they feel like they can stop gaming if they want to. Although the survey only had Dutch teen participants, Colder Carras’ team believes that the responses would likely be comparable to teens in other developed countries, such as the United States.

The team focused on numerous subsets of respondents while doing their statistical analysis, particularly heavy gamers who did not report frequent online social interactions and those who did. They determined that symptoms of video game addiction does not only depend on video game play, but that concurrent levels of online communication also played a significant role. Those gamers that were not socially active online reported more symptoms of game addiction. Although all of the subsets of heavy gamers had more symptoms of depression, boys who were not very social online showed an increase in anxiety and loneliness, irrespective of the quality of their friendships. Girls who gamed extensively, but were also very active in online social settings, had less social anxiety and loneliness, but suffered from lower self-esteem.

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) is known as the bible of the American Psychiatric Association. In its most recent edition, it was proposed that Internet Gaming Disorder be studied further. Questions about how to best differentiate between engaged gamers and problematic gamers, remain unanswered. Engaged gamers have fewer symptoms of addiction and depression problems than problematic gamers do. It is also not yet possible to identify those gamers that have a loss of control over gaming associated with problems that lead to significant distress or harm.

Colder Carras noted that most of the adolescents who reported playing video games for four or more hours a day, did report depressive symptoms. She did however emphasize that although this could possibly reflect problems that need treatment, it shouldn’t be assumed that all those teens have disorders that needs treating, or even that these are gaming related. Clinicians and parents should first look at the underlying reasons for why the teens play so many video games in the first place.

She suggests that the findings open up the awareness that playing many video games could possibly be part of having an active social life. Instead of being overly worried about the game playing, the focus should be on those who lack a social life or have other problems in addition to participating in extended gaming. Rather than assuming that a lot of video game playing will automatically result in gaming related problems, clinicians and parents should investigate whether these teens also have high quality friendships, or not. It is entirely possible that they simply have good friends who they like to hang out with and play video games. That is probably not an equation with cause for concern.

Colder Carras believes the key is to look for the reasons why the teens spend so many hours behind a computer or console. It could be a way to socialize and bond with others, in person or through interactive online games, or because the teen is too depressed to cope with the real world and uses gaming as an attempt to deal with loneliness.

She also notes that although older teens can often recognize when their internet usage is problematic, younger ones may need help to put everything into perspective. One way to do so would be to give them advice on how to handle potential gaming related issues that may arise.