Many teenagers who are suffering from mental health issues as a result of the various COVID-19 lockdowns are now finding comfort in using videogames as their coping mechanism.

People’s physical health has not been the only thing compromised over the last few months as the continued periods of self-isolation have considerably worsened the general population’s mental health (adversely so in young adults).

According to a survey, mental health charity Young Minds concluded that the pandemic as a whole has had a dire impact on young people’s mental health. They report that 41% of young people feel as if their mental health has been “much worse” over the course of the last year, while a staggering 87% said they have felt lonely during the lockdown period.

Due to these worrying figures, many young people who are searching for some form of engaging social activity to keep them busy while quarantined have started to turn to gaming as the solution to their problems.

Gaming under lockdown

Like many people, 19-year-old Lea Williamson is an avid gamer who has been stuck inside and separated from her friends and family – some of whom she hasn’t seen in person for months.

During the course of the last year, gaming has offered her peace of mind during troubling times. Speaking about how gaming has been beneficial to her, Lea said: “In my opinion, there are many mental health benefits to gaming. Gaming helps reduce daily stress and lets people forget about their problems for even just a short while.

“Gaming has helped me during lockdown as it’s been a way for me to stay in touch with my close friends and my boyfriend who I’ve not been able to visit due to travel restrictions.

“Gaming has also helped me when I have felt down as it distracts me from my problems. It gives me enjoyment to just chill out and do something relaxing for a bit, which can stop me from worrying all the time.”

The newfound appeal for gaming

In stark contrast to many other commercial sectors, the gaming industry has seen a vast increase in sales, this means more people are currently gaming than ever.

When asked about why she thinks gaming has become so popular recently, Lea commented: “I think gaming has had a surge in popularity this last year because it has become a way for people to keep in touch with their friends and family who they aren’t able to actually see.

“The appeal of games versus movies and TV shows has to be the ability to replay the games and make different decisions that can alter the ending of the game entirely, there are many different ways to play a game so they can keep your interest for longer than other forms of media.

“Another reason why there’s more appeal towards games is due to the fact that you are in control and can dictate what happens whilst with watching or reading something, it’s completely passive and you have no say in what happens.”

The psychological science behind gaming

Andrew Green is a psychology lecturer at the University of Bedfordshire who has a keen interest in cyberpsychology (primarily gaming and internet culture). He spoke about the positive mental health effects gaming can bring us, as he described: “There are a quite a lot of positive mental health benefits to gaming, it has been at the forefront of a lot of psychological research in the last five years or so.

“A major one is stress relief, players can immerse themselves in pretend worlds that are safe and inside these safe environments they can deal with any negative emotions and work those out.

“There is also the dopaminergic response, so when you are given a goal and you complete that goal you’ll receive a dopamine reward. This is the same biological reward that you get when you have sex or eat chocolate.

“Games are very much developed to give you rewards for completing your tasks – which in turn makes you feel good. There is ample opportunity to experience positive emotions such as satisfaction, joy and happiness.”

Andrew then spoke about exactly what type of games are the best for our mental wellbeing as he explained: “Games with short commitments and that are easily accessible can help relax players and ward off anxiety.  

“For example, let’s say puzzle videogames. Something like Angry Birds that rewards players for completing goals. These sorts of games can provide a temporary reprieve from reality or the mundane.

“Research actually suggests that some videogames can be a source of pride as well as reducing negative emotions while promoting positive ones.”

Potential downsides to gaming

Andrew recognised that while gaming in moderation can be good for us, those who spend too much time online will start to see a declining mental state. He said: “There are definitely some negative aspects to gaming, depending on how someone uses games.

“Something that is quite pervasive in the media at the minute is videogame addiction. This is where people either feel compelled to play them all the time or they feel like this is the only way that they can deal with stress and anxiety.

“Gaming can also lead to self-isolation if you turn inwardly and just play on your own. About 70-75% of gamers play online with their friends or others over the internet. Some people don’t and just play by themselves and choose that over real-world socialisation.”

Can videogames really help improve our mental health?

The full interview with gamer Lea Williamson and psychologist Andrew Green as they discuss the positive and negatives of videogames.

Gaming as a force for good

Although videogames are a fairly new form of entertainment, many organisations and leading research institutions have now also begun to recognise the positive impact that gaming can have on our mental health.

The University of Oxford recently conducted a study that showed that there was a positive correlation between gaming and a good mental state. Throughout the course of the study, it was revealed that players who experienced genuine enjoyment from their time spent gaming would then go on to feel happier in their general well-being and throughout everyday life.

On a similar note, The Royal Society published a report that concluded there was next to no evidence that violent videogames led to aggressive behaviour – debunking the claims of many mainstream media outlets that have often suggested otherwise. Interestingly, they also note that no scientific study has ever directly linked videogames as the definitive cause of any real-world violence. Furthermore, this report also theorizes that many previous claims of violent behaviour stemming from gaming are usually based on falsified or misleading data, usually in order to fit a particular political agenda.

Overall, despite there being lots of new evidence emerging that videogames can improve our daily lives, the potential downsides stemming from overexposure to gaming still remains to be seen as this is currently the subject of many ongoing studies.

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