Research Briefing Paper for Schools, Settings and Services
Summary taken from Lobel, A., Engels, R.C.M.E., Stone, L.L., Burk, W.J. & Granic, I. (2017). Video Gaming and Children’s Psychosocial Wellbeing: A Longitudinal Study. Journal of Youth and Adolescence, 46(4), 884-897.
Video games have rapidly become a universal aspect of child development (Lenhart et al. 2008), and their quick rise to prominence has stimulated scientific inquiry and public concern (Ferguson 2013). With researchers stressing that children may be particularly susceptible to the influence of video game playing (Bushman and Huesmann 2006; Lobel et al. 2014a), the effects of video games on children’s psychosocial development remains highly debated. Video games have thus been widely studied as a potential cause for aggressive cognitions and behaviour (Anderson et al. 2010; Carnagey and Anderson 2004), emotional problems such as depression (Tortolero et al. 2014), and hyperactivity and inattention (Gentile et al. 2012).
The potential influence of video games on social behaviour has become particularly relevant. This is because, compared to the video games of just two decades ago, contemporary video games have become increasingly social in nature (Olson 2010). For instance, many games designed for multiple players feature cooperative game modes where players are encouraged to work together with others. A number of studies support the hypothesis that cooperative gaming may promote prosocial behaviour (Dolgov et al. 2014; Ewoldsen et al. 2012) and may curb aggressive behaviours (Jerabeck and Ferguson 2013; Velez et al. 2014).
Researchers have also recently begun to look at video games as a domain for training healthy habits of mind (Adachi and Willoughby 2012; Granic et al. 2014). From this perspective, many video games reward communication and cooperation as well as resolving negative emotions such as frustration. Moreover, video games seem to provide a context for the fulfillment of self-deterministic needs, thereby positively contributing to psychological well-being (Ryan et al. 2006).
Hyperactivity and inattention has been investigated as a detrimental psychosocial outcome of gaming. This research is premised on the perception that video games are fast-paced and offer frequent rewards, thus potentially habituating children to a steady stream of novel, pleasurable stimuli. On the one hand, children with Attentional Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder have been shown to play more video games than their peers (Mazurek and Engelhardt 2013) and Gentile and colleagues (2012) argue that there may be a bidirectional effect between attentional problems and gaming. On the other hand, studies among adults show that action video games may confer cognitive benefits, including improvements in executive functioning (Green and Bavelier 2012). Due to these conflicting findings, and a lack of longitudinal research among children, the extent to which gaming may influence children’s attention remains largely unknown.
There are many shortcomings of the above studies which the researchers discuss. Many of these studies have not controlled for relevant background variables such as socio-economic status (SES) and gender. Most of these experimental studies were run in a single lab session and therefore these experiments do not give enough insight into the long-term consequences of playing video games. Furthermore, studies that examine the link between gaming and emotional problems have predominantly focused on “problematic gamers.” These are individuals who habitually play for very many hours and show other signs of dependency, such as avoiding social interactions or obligations in favour of gaming (van Rooij et al. 2011). Among adolescents, such gamers seem to have elevated depression symptoms compared to their peers (Messias et al. 2011). These problems seem to emerge as a result of escapism; that is that problematic gamers seem drawn to gaming as an escape from real world problems. As a means of escape, gaming may offer temporary distraction, but without alleviating real world distress, excessive gaming may only exacerbate said problems.
In this study, at two time points, 1 year apart, 194 children (7.27–11.43 years old; male = 98) reported their gaming frequency, and their tendencies to play violent video games, and to game (a) cooperatively and (b) competitively; likewise, parents reported their children’s psychosocial health. Gaming at time one was associated with increases in emotion problems. Violent gaming was not associated with psychosocial changes. Cooperative gaming was not associated with changes in prosocial behaviour. Finally, competitive gaming was associated with decreases in prosocial behaviour, but only among children who played video games with high frequency. Thus, gaming frequency was related to increases in internalizing but not externalizing, attention, or peer problems, violent gaming was not associated with increases in externalizing problems, and for children playing approximately 8 h or more per week, frequent competitive gaming may be a risk factor for decreasing prosocial behaviour. The authors argue that replication is needed and that future research should better distinguish between different forms of gaming for more nuanced and generalizable insight. However the study provides a useful overview of the research into gaming to date and offers a basis for our knowledge on an issue that will inevitably become more prominent in the future.