Boys who regularly play video games at age 11 are less likely to display depression symptoms when they're 14. But this doesn't seem to be the case for girls. Taken together, the findings suggest that video games can have both a positive and a negative effect on mental health, and it's not always a straightforward relationship.
If there's one thing that has changed drastically in the past two decades, it's computers. Computers used to be incredibly big, bulky, and not that capable. That couldn't be further from the truth nowadays. The smartphone in your pocket is millions of times more powerful than the equipment that sent people to the moon, and year on year, they just get more and more powerful.
As a result, screens have become almost ubiquitous in our society. You have your small screen that you carry in your pocket, the big screen you work on, the even bigger screen you watch movies on, sometimes even screens on utilities. Screens are everywhere, and we're not really sure if that's a good thing -- especially when it comes to kids.
Ever since computers became mainstream, researchers have voiced concerns about screens, concerns ranging from vision to mental health problems. But screens allow us to do different things and can have varying effects, and we should consider this instead of drawing any blanket conclusions, researchers say.
"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," says Aaron Kandola the author of the new study.
At first, the general idea seemed to be that video games can have a negative effect on mental health, making children more aggressive and worsening their mental health. But a flurry of recent studies paints a very different picture, showing not only that much of this damage was overstated, but that in many instances, casual video gaming can actually improve the mental health of children.
In the new study, the results are a mixed bag. A research team involving from UCL, Karolinska Institutet (Sweden) and the Baker Heart and Diabetes Institute (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. They asked the teens at age 11 about how much they spend on social media, video games, and other internet activities. Then, at age 14, they asked them again about any depression symptoms.
After accounting for other factors that may affect the results (such as socioeconomic status, physical activity, or reports of bullying), the researchers look at how depression symptoms were linked with screen habits. At age 14, boys who played video games most days had 24% fewer depressive symptoms than boys who played video games less than once a month. This effect, however, was not observed on girls. Although it's not clear why this happens, researchers link it with different screen use patterns between boys and girls.
"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. Particularly during the pandemic, video games have been an important social platform for young people," adds Kandola, who is a PhD student at UCL Psychiatry.
Sitting down and social media cause problems
The researchers note that the positive effect on boys was only significant among those with low physical activity. We all know (or should know) that sitting down for prolonged periods is really bad for your health, but it's important to know that sitting down can affect your mind as well as your body. Kandola's previous research has shown that sedentary behavior seems to increase the risk of depression and anxiety in adolescents. So it could very well be that sitting down (and not screen time itself) is causing harmful effects.
"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."
Social media also plays a role. For girls, this role seems to be particularly important. Researchers found that girls (but not boys) who used social media at age 11 had 13% more depressive symptoms when they were 14. The same association was not found for more moderate use of social media. This fits with previous studies indicating that intense social media usage can increase feelings of loneliness and alienation.
The study only shows an association, not a cause-effect relationship. But it seems to suggest that not all screen time is equal, and video games can have a positive component. Researchers say that video games could support mental health, especially those that feature problem-solving, social, cooperative, and engaging elements. At any rate, reducing the amount of sedentary time seems to be a much healthier intervention than reducing screen time.
Senior author Dr. Mats Hallgren from the Karolinska Institutet has conducted other studies in adults, finding that active screen time (when you're doing something like playing a game) seems to have a different effect on depression than passive screen time (watching something).
"The relationship between screen time and mental health is complex, and we still need more research to help understand it. Any initiatives to reduce young people's screen time should be targeted and nuanced. 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," says Hallgren.
The study was published in Psychological Medicine.