There is a common concern in academia that video games can cause depression. It is a completely valid concern. There is a lot of correlation between violent video games and symptoms of depression. That raises the question: Is there a connection between video games and depression?
Playing too many video games can make depression worse. Those who are addicted to gaming are twice as likely to be depressed as those who do not game. Excessive gaming can lead to dopamine exhaustion, emotional suppression, and lack of motivation, among other issues.
Video Games and Depression Studies
- Most research on video games is based on finding a correlation between violent video games and aggression. Few studies have carefully looked at the relationship between violent video games and depression, especially in preadolescent youth. However, a study conducted by Susan Tortolero et al. explored this domain. They found that when compared with playing low-violence video games for <2 hours per day, playing high-violence video games for greater than 2 hours per day was significantly associated with a higher number of depressive symptoms among preadolescent youth.
- Another study that looked at the psychological effect of gaming found that potentially problematic video gaming was associated with positive emotions and social relationships while playing. However, it was also correlated with:
- Maladaptive coping strategies
- Negative emotions
- Low self-esteem
- A preference for solitude
- Poor school performance
- Researchers from Beijing Normal University took a group of more than 2000 students aged 16 to 21 who had gamed more than two hours a day over the past four years. They refined this sample down to 63 gamers who fit the gaming addiction criteria and put them through MRI scans. The study found that the signals from the left amygdala (which controls emotions and is heavily involved in depression) were disrupting their prefrontal cortex (which controls reason). This meant that they were more likely to stay online, which made their depressive symptoms worse.
- Psychologist Brian Sutton-Smith found that work is not the opposite of play. In fact, the opposite of play is depression. Researchers have found that video games mainly stimulate our reward pathways and our hippocampus (the center for learning) and these are the same areas that get understimulated and even shink overtime when we are clinically depressed.
Can Video Games Cause Depression?
The short answer is that almost no studies have found a definite causal relationship between video games and clinical depression. Many people with a problematic gaming habit indeed exhibit specific symptoms of depression. However, there is a difference between clinical depression and unhappiness. You can fail to meet the criteria for depression and still be unhappy.
This is the case for a lot of gamers because of the way video games work. Their video game addiction leads to them neglecting other areas of their life. As a result, they fall backward in terms of their academic/professional performance, self-care, and relationships. This reduces their quality of life and makes them feel stuck and unhappy.
The belief that video games cause depression is further exacerbated by the fact that most mental health professionals do not understand the effect that video games have on our brains. As a result, they diagnose gamers with depression. While many players fit a lot of criteria for depression, their treatment for it does not help them, because video game addiction does not work the same way as depression.
Do Video Games Help With Depression?
Many people use video games to cope with depression. This is not necessarily healthy since it is easy to get addicted to video games if you are already depressed. People start playing games because they are a safe place to escape the real world. You can lose yourself in a virtual environment and push away the emotional pain that you experience in real life.
It is common for children and adolescents to start playing games to escape bullies that threaten them in real life and online. They can find people in online communities who do not judge them for being overweight, having acne, or being poor. They feel that people on the internet judge them for who they are as a person, and not the circumstances in their life that they cannot control as a teenager. That is why games are appealing to them, and that is how they use video games to cope with depression.
Data from fMRI scans show that gaming suppresses negative emotions. This is why video games are so effective at helping people cope with depression. They shut off the negative emotion circuitry in your brain, and stop you from feeling sad, ashamed, or lonely.
Effect of Video Games on Mental Health
When we think of the effect of video games on our mental health, we usually only think of the adverse effects. We believe that video games keep us stuck in life, cause anxiety, depression, and create strain in our relationships. While it is true that video games can contribute to these issues, they are not necessarily the cause, nor are their effects limited to the negative.
- Video games create a sense of community. If someone is lonely in real life, then they can find friends online. These friends can be very authentic. The relationships formed online can last for a long time, because the usual barriers that limit long-term friendships, such as geographical distance are no longer a factor. In fact, these friends are sometimes the only support structure some people have, and as a result, they help them get through tough times, including dealing with mental illness.
- Video games can be an enjoyable recreational activity. Many of us have experienced LAN parties as kids, and those were the best times. Hanging out with a group of friends. The sense of competitiveness and camaraderie that one experiences in gaming can be truly authentic. One can quickly turn to video games in moderation to spend time with friends online during hard times, such as the COVID-19 outbreak.
- Video games train your analytical mind. A systematic review of several studies found that gamers demonstrated an above-average ability to focus their attention on a single stimulus intensely and multiple stimuli simultaneously. Video games develop excellent problem-solving skills under a time constraint, which makes gamers prime candidates to thrive in fast-paced professional environments, such as startups.
Dr. K talks more about what purpose gaming serves for us, and why we get addicted, in this video:
- Video games can easily lead to dopamine addiction. Dopamine is the neurotransmitter that governs our experience of pleasure, and that is why video games are fun. However, when a gamer needs to play more and more to have the same amount of fun, then they are most likely addicted to dopamine.
- Gaming hacks into a psychological pattern in our mind called the Triumph circuit. This circuit is responsible for making us feel good when we overcome a challenge. If someone gets all their sense of success from playing games, then they can get stuck. They cannot get motivated to move forward in other areas of their life.
- Video games suppress negative emotions. This is one of the main reasons they are used as a means to cope with depression and anxiety. Long term usage of video games can lead to a condition called Alexithymia, which is the inability to determine your internal emotional state. This can make mental illness worse because people cannot pinpoint specific emotions that contribute to their current state.
Finding a Mental Health Professional for Depression
You do not need to have a problem to see a therapist. Go to a therapist to narrow down your issues when you feel stuck. This will allow you to make healthier decisions to address those problems.
Depression and anxiety are common mood disorders, and there are quite a few resources that you can use.
- Try simple google searches such as “psychiatrists near me” or “therapists near my location”. More often than not, you will find a provider near you. This is also highly dependant on your country of residence.
- If you are in the US, you can call your insurance company and ask them to refer you to a mental health provider.
- Websites such as PsychologyToday, BetterHelp and TalkSpace are great options if you want to connect with a licensed professional online.
- If you need financial aid to get therapy, then Rise Above the Disorder (RAD) is an excellent choice. RAD is a non-profit that is dedicated to making mental health care accessible to everyone. You can use their resources here.
Moreover, it is important to understand that mental health professionals are all about “fit.” If you think that your therapist does not understand you, do not give up on therapy. Instead, look for another therapist who is younger and, if possible, has experience helping people with problematic internet/gaming use.
Dr. K goes more into seeing a therapist for depression, in this video:
Video games do not cause depression, but they can undoubtedly mask it and make the problem worse. People sometimes misattribute pre-existing depression to video games. Video games can sometimes make your quality of life worse via addiction. While they may not make you clinically depressed, it is possible to become unhappy if you struggle with problematic video game usage.
If the answer to that question is yes, then you have a problem that you need to address.
If you feel that your gaming habit is affecting your life, we can help. Sign up to work with a HealthyGamer Coach, trained by Dr. Alok Kanojia himself. HealthyGamer Coaches are gamers who have taken control of their life, and know exactly what you’re going through.
If you’re a parent seeking help with your child’s video game addiction, check out our Family Programs.