Monday, January 17, 2011

Excessive Gaming and Depression

I'll be the first to admit that the Wii makes a great babysitter. Fun, peppy personality, reliable, and the kids are in love!

When I have to meet a work deadline and I have a house full of my short friends, eager to do something, I sometimes let them Wii. And oh, my, how the time flies!

Suddenly and hour, two hours, dare I admit THREE hours go by. Without a peep from my peeps for me to engage or intervene or entertain. No muss, no fuss, and my project gets done.

We don't always go on video game benders like that. I typically limit their screen time -- whether it's the TV, laptop, or a phone. But life gets busy, and we occasionally have days that are intense for Mom and Dad.

But once the deadlines have passed and I am no longer a crazed lunatic, I find it all a bit appalling. What do we have to show for all that time? Just thinking of those hours spent on Star Wars Legos for the Wii makes me queasy. Like the way I feel after consuming a whole pint of Ben & Jerry's Peanut Butter Cup.

Both instances (the excessive Wii and the ice-cream overload) require a bit more self-control on all our part. I own up to throwing out the rules now and then -- life isn't always tidy.

Balance. Moderation. We all strive for reasonable approaches to life in our day to day, and we want our kids to understand it too. But it's hard. And it takes discipline -- both internal and external.

As adults, we recognized that just about anything in massive doses is bad for us. Kids have to be taught this. And that's why the recent study by the American Academy of Pediatrics that found excessive gaming may lead to depression, anxiety, and poor grades in school comes as no surprise.

The researchers studied more than 3,000 elementary and middle-school children in Singapore. Their findings? Almost 9 percent of these kids were "addicted" to gaming, and similar percentages were found in other countries.

The kids where considered "pathological" gamers exhibited higher levels of depression and other mental health issues than their peers who played fewer video games. On the plus side was that students who stopped excessive gaming reportedly reduced their levels of depression, anxiety and social phobia.

As I read this, I immediately wanted to know where my kids fit in. According to the study:
  • Pathological gamers clocked in an average of more than 31 hours a week
  • Their less excessive peers tallied about 19 hours a week
What does 31 hours look like? Well, nearly a full-time job. Even the group playing fewer hours could still hold a part-time job.

If kids are gaming every day after they come home from school, they're putting in more than 6 hours daily. Say they get home at 3 p.m., -- does this mean they are gaming until 9 p.m.? What about homework, dinner, any sort of sports or other activities? To fit those it too, they're probably gaming until midnight.

If those 31 hours are distributed over the entire week, that's nearly 5 hours each day.

And with what are those hours filled? Just like the Wii benders we experience, and when I stare at that empty Ben & Jerry's carton, yuck. Regret.

What would these kids in the study be like if they were engaged in something productive? What if they were building a new game to share with friends? Or making a movie, creating a public service announcement for their school. Or moving offline, what if they were playing a sport? Singing in a choir? Would they be depressed if they were interacting with friends or friendly adults? Would their grades turn around if they found more purpose for their time?

Perhaps the kids in this study already had addictive behaviors, and gaming just happens to be the outlet. That is possible -- in any cross-section of the population, we will find a lot of folks with these issues.

But any way we count it, 31 hours is a lot of time to spend on endless, repetitive tasks each week. And the rewards seem less than satisfying. It would tax the mind and emotions of anyone, adult or child.


  1. I remember my brother getting up at 4am just so he could play video games before school. And after school and long as he could.

    And yes, he was severely depressed for years and I believe those video games were 90% of the cause. I think that's th reason I hate video games so much.

    Great post!

  2. Really good post, Kate, raising important issues that all parents need to consider when faced with a pleading gradeschooler desperate to play online or with the Wii. Incidentally ours has served its purpose as occasional last ditch babysitter too, and my kids seem relatively unscathed. We multitasking moms need to steal uninterrupted time wherever we can and shouldn't feel guilty about such 'outsourcing' in moderation. ;)

    I guess one thing I would add is that higher-quality content would make a huge difference in how I personally view the time my children spend in front of digital screens, whether PC, mobile or console. I don't mean educational programs per se because, let's be honest, kids don't exactly flock to those when alternatives beckon.
    I do believe, however, that fun games in the model of currently successful virtual worlds and casual games targeted at kids can be built upon enriching content that parents can feel good about their kids spending time with, for example, incorporating real facts drawn from the fields of science, geography, history, etc.

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