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Game On: Oxford Intensive Gaming Study disproves decades of parental anxiety

Sonia Shuster reports.

An Oxford research study published last week has revealed that gaming does not have as negative an influence on teenage mental health as generally suspected. The paper was based on the most recent OxWell Student Survey, an extensive annual survey of adolescent mental health developed by Oxford’s Department of Psychiatry.

The OxWell Survey was initiated in 2019 with the intention of “measur[ing] the wellbeing (health and happiness) of children and young people aged 9–18 years old.” Students fill out an anonymous online survey, particular to their age group, that assesses a range of factors including “mental wellbeing, anxiety, indicators of vulnerability, substance usage, [and] online safety”. Despite its local origins, what began as a small project covering Oxfordshire in 2019 has since upgraded its reach to more than 30,000 students from 180 schools across the UK. 12,725 students aged 12 to 18 answered the gaming-specific questions, which were then used for the research paper. The OxWell research team is led by Oxford Professor of Adolescent Psychiatry Mina Fazel, who is also a co-author of the Gaming study.

The lead author of the Gaming study alongside Fazel is Dr. Simona Skripkauskaite, a postdoctoral researcher at Oxford University’s Department of Experimental Psychology. Skripkauskaite told Cherwell that she knows “from personal experience that video games offer many benefits,” and she hopes to uncover the truth behind the “persistent fear” that clinical and parental communities may have about the effect of video games on young minds. She looked at the students’ responses about their gaming habits and compared them to their responses about mental health and other lifestyle factors such as anxiety, isolation, and impulse control.

“​​For years, researchers have often oversold the negative correlation between time spent gaming and mental health, which we did not even find in our sample, as evidence of a causal link between gaming and deteriorating mental health,” said Skripkauskaite. She noted that some of the limitations of “cross-sectional data” in the OxWell survey meant that researchers couldn’t explore “any directionality between different associations”. 

However, the researchers were able to differentiate between different categories of gamers based on shared trends in responses to mental health and gaming questions in the survey. The six categories of gamers identified in the survey were “adaptive computer gamers (44%), casual computer gamers (22%), casual phone gamers (15%), unknown device gamers (12%), maladaptive computer gamers (6%), and maladaptive phone gamers (2%).” With these categorisations, Skripkauskaite found that most intensive gamers, despite using their devices for upwards of 3.5 hours a day, were in proportionally good mental health.

The researchers were also able to isolate a much smaller percentage of gamers that were “maladaptive”. These gamers had formed unhealthy gaming patterns and signaled a loss of self-control over their habits. According to the OxWell Survey, they also were more likely to suffer from issues such as anxiety or aggressive behaviour. Maladaptive phone gamers, who made up 2% of the survey, “were mostly female… and were more likely to have experienced abuse or neglect.” At 6%, maladaptive computer gamers “were mostly male and more likely to report anxiety, aggressive behaviour, and web-based gambling”.

Skripkauskaite told Cherwell that “the small proportion of adolescent gamers that are not doing as well do appear to have less control over their gaming habits, but they also more often have traumatic past experiences, behavioural, and mental health problems.” She believes that such factors could explain their poorer general well-being alongside their gaming habits, as intensive gaming could be a coping mechanism for these adolescents rather than the culprit behind their issues.

The Oxford research study reveals, alongside the different types of gamers, that “as any other group of people, most adolescent gamers are doing just fine.” However, Skripkauskaite hopes that the study “will help people to see that in some cases when gaming does appear problematic, it may actually be a symptom of an underlying issue that should be addressed, instead.”

The study’s conclusion states “although increased time gaming might be changing how adolescents spend their free time and might thus have public health implications, it does not seem to relate to co-occurring well-being issues or mental ill-health for the majority of adolescent gamers.” This statement supports one of Skripkauskaite’s goals for her research: “to reassure the parents and clinicians that may be worrying about the young people who simply like gaming.”

Image credit: Igor Karimov via Unsplash

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