June 9, 2018
by Amy Rollo
As a child counselor, one of the most common questions I have received the past few years has been about video games and childhood mental health. With the recent increase in school shootings, we look for a reason to understand the unthinkable events. Inevitably, the news will discuss video games as a potential cause of each school shooting.
The research has been mixed regarding video games, as the games are not all bad or all good. For many youths, video games are a way to connect with other peers and socialize. Video games produce arousal levels in our body that can impact thinking and decision making. In fact, the heart rate can increase to over 100 beats per minute (an increase of approximately 40 percent), while the blood pressure also rises. Many researchers have found that this arousal hinders our rational and decision making abilities. While the body is at rest, it is producing adrenaline and the screen is sending the message to the brain that, “It is bright out; it is not time for rest.” Subsequently, the person playing video games has no desire for bed, is becoming irritable and irrational, and is withdrawing from in person social contact and other play activities. All of this is happening while the body is at rest and not moving! The body is literally going into fight or flight mode and continues to be in this mode each time the individual plays video games while not moving from the couch. What becomes even more alarming is that this constant state of arousal in the body is impacting thinking ability by redirecting blood flow from the frontal lobe (decision making, problem solving, and judgment area of the brain) and into the survival areas of the brain that are more primitive. Further, dopamine is released to activate pleasure circuits in the brain. The body is literally going into chronic stress while craving and seeking to continue this experience.
As a play therapist, my number one concern about video games is not the impact of video games on the body. I am more concerned about what video games remove from a youth’s life - natural and free play. Play is the natural language of a child. It is literally how a child processes and communicate emotions. For instance, imaginary play allows the child the ability to express emotions and gain control of a situation by acting the situation out. Board games allow children self-regulation by waiting their turn, learning to appropriately react to winning and losing, and the social skills of expected behaviors. Another area of play, playgrounds, can help a child learn social rules, healthy risks, build self-confidence and self-esteem, and self-regulate their bodies. Another type of play that is crucial for children and adolescents is mindfulness play. This naturally occurred in previous generations with a slower type of play. For instance, fishing, looking for seashells on the beach, cloud gazing, and picking flowers! Mindfulness play helps regulate mood and behaviors, decrease anxiety, while also regulating activity level.
Research has shown that the rates of psychopathology are increasing significantly while play is decreasing at the same rate. For example, there are up to eight times as many adolescents who meet criteria for a depression and/or anxiety disorder this generation compared to previous generations (50 years prior). Recess is being reduced or eliminated while studies show that increasing recess increases student’s academic performance.
Overall, play is critical to a child’s and adolescent’s development. Structured play through sports, board games, social activities, and mindfulness play all have benefits that can help support mental health. While video games can be fun and allow for an online community of friends, the unnatural arousal that it produces without any physical activity can have an impact on thinking and judgment.