The Dark Side of Video Gaming

A new study shows that excessive gaming is linked to troublesome behaviors such as smoking and fighting in adolescent girls.

While recreational use of video games is associated with few health consequences, a new study finds that problematic gaming is linked to externalizing behaviors such as smoking, drug use, and fighting—particularly in girls.

The effects of video games have been found to be mixed, with little evidence emerging of poor consequences resulting from recreational play. Existing literature has focused on aggression rather than the health correlates of gaming and the prevalence and correlates of problematic gaming, an area that has been identified over the past few years as potentially concerning.

In a recent study published in Pediatrics, Rani A. Desai, PhD, MPH, of Yale University School of Medicine, and colleagues surveyed 4,028 adolescents about gaming and reported problems with gaming and other health behaviors. Of the group surveyed, 51.2% reported gaming (76.3% of boys and 29.2% of girls).

The research, they noted, “is among the first and largest to examine clinical correlates of video-gaming and problematic gaming in a community sample of adolescents.” Problematic gaming, according to the authors, is defined as trying to cut back, experiencing an irresistible urge to play, and experiencing a growing tension that could only be relieved by playing.

Desai and colleagues found no negative health correlates of gaming in boys, “which likely reflects the popularity and normative nature of such games for this group.” Boys who reported gaming were significantly less likely to report being a regular smoker. For girls, however, it was a different story. Although they were less likely to report depression, they were more likely to report getting into serious fights and carrying a weapon to school.

Among boys who reported gaming, they found that 5.9% endorsed problematic gaming, compared with 3.0% of girls, which suggests that male gamers may be at higher risk for developing a gaming problem, but that overall, the risk of developing a problem is relatively low. According to the study, the correlates of problematic gaming included regular cigarette smoking, drug use, depression, and serious fights.

The results of this study suggest that adolescents with problematic gaming are more likely to also be engaging in other risk behaviors such as smoking, drug use, and violence and are more likely to report depression. With these data, however, “it is not possible to determine whether problematic gaming leads to experimentation, aggression, or depression or vice versa, or the factors develop in conjunction, perhaps related to common etiologic factors such as the violence content in games or other common underlying traits such as introversion/extraversion, impulsivity, or sensation-seeking,” said researchers. Future longitudinal research is warranted to investigate the onset of risk behaviors in temporal relation to gaming and their potential roles in the development of health problems.

Desai and colleagues concluded that although the prevalence of problematic gaming is low, the number is not insignificant, and may be contained within a larger spectrum of externalizing behaviors. “More research is needed to define safe levels of gaming, refine the definition of problematic gaming, and evaluate effective prevention and intervention strategies,” they noted.

To access the Pediatrics study, click here.

What is the physician’s role in addressing subjects like gaming with patients and their parents? Are most physicians sufficiently educated on the difference between recreational and problematic gaming?