Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Blog Post: A worthless study that blames society's problems on video games...again.

This is why I hate the news.

Earlier this week, health news source Healthday reported on the results of a study that was recently conducted on a correlation between video game playing and depression. The study was picked up by Yahoo News and was posted as a significant story, which you can read here.The study, which involved a survey of over 3,000 Singapore kids from grades 3-8, frankly doesn't say much of anything. As with any study of this nature, a large amount of this is all speculation and the "evidence" that ties video games to the onset of depression in adolescents is non-existent. Yet it's an article with a headline that I'm sure grabbed lots of parents and likely generated a fair amount of attention. Unfortunately.

The results of this study found that adolescents who engaged in what it calls "pathological gaming," developed social anxieties or had pre-existing conditions of social anxieties and depression worsened. Though the article isn't exactly clear about this, "Pathological gaming" seems to be defined as being the playing of video games for over 30 hours a week by kids this age.....which is of course a lot of time. What's so crazy about this article (and it's worth reading, if only to see how completely contradictory a piece of news reporting on one of these "studies" can be, especially when the 2 experts being quoted seem to be disagreeing with each other) is how little it actually managed to say.

The results are explained by Douglas A. Gentile, a professor at Iowa State University, who I guess oversaw or participated in the study.

Here's one of his quotes:

"What we've known from other studies is that video gaming addiction looks similar to other addictions. But what wasn't clear was what comes before what. Gaming might be a secondary problem. It might be that kids who are socially awkward, who aren't doing well in school, get depressed and then lose themselves into games. We haven't really known if gaming is important by itself, or what puts kids at risk for becoming addicted."
Which seems like a fairly reasonable quote. I imagine that it's fairly common for people with depression or social anxieties to busy themselves in something, to find something to occupy their time spent alone. This is not a difficult jump to make. What I guess is so amazing about this (and maybe it's just the way it was reported by Yahoo, or I really hope so, anyway) is that it doesn't seem to consider the fact that video games are just one of many ways that people with social anxieties can choose to distance themselves from the world. Why not books? Why not try a similar study with books? Force a kid with social anxieties or depression to read books for 30 hours a week and see how happy they are.

Here's my point. Sitting up in your room for 30 hours a week playing video games is no different from locking yourself in your room and reading books all day long. Or watching movies. Or using the internet. Or writing stories. Or drawing pictures. Anything can be done in excess, and excess is generally not healthy. Playing video games is not THE problem, it's a result of the problem. As you can see in the article, or the quote below, this study seems to attempt to prove otherwise by blaming gaming for causing or worsening these social problems, which is in my opinion, crazy, not to mention highly speculative.

Let's look at it this way. If somebody is depressed, and they spend 30 hours a week isolated and playing video games or any of the above activities instead of getting help from, say, a therapist, or interacting with others, or talking to their parents about their problems, then obviously, they're not getting help for their depression. And if someone who is depressed doesn't get help, it often worsens over time, and that's just a fact.

But this study, as it's presented in this article, seems to make the argument that perfectly healthy kids, who just happen to begin "pathologically gaming," develop social anxieties and depression. Which I think is insane. I can't think of any other way to put it. Check this quote out:
Gentile said the researchers aren't sure how gaming is contributing to depression, anxiety and other social phobias, but in this study, "the gaming precedes the depression. We don't know if it's truly causal, but gaming has an effect on its own, and you can't just ignore gaming and treat depression," he said.
"Over 30 hours a week," is a hell of a lot of time to spend playing video games; to even get 30 hours, you're looking at people who might be playing video games 4.5 hours every day of the week. (Which, by the way, is only 9% of the kids who made up this study. So again, what this study actually proves, I have no idea.) This study/article says to parents that if they're not monitoring the time their kids are spending playing video gaming, the kids could slip into "pathological gaming," which can "lead to depression"!?

I'm sorry but if someone at this age is spending 4.5 hours every single day of the week, at minimum, playing video games, there MAY be problems that should be addressed, and just taking away the video games are not going to address these problems. People who use anything as an "escape" from their lives are likely escaping from what they find to be unfulfilling lives, lives that may very well be impacted by social anxieties and depression. Kids this age who game for 30+ hours a week are at risk for developing depression and social anxieties? Seriously!? These kids probably already have it, get them help, and stop looking to blame everything on video games. If parents notice that their kids are "pathological gaming," they should get off their arses and do stuff with their kids, for starters. Take them to a movie, take them to Chuck E. Cheese's, bring them to the park, get them involved in other activities. Stop relying on video games as a babysitter. And if parents see their kids sitting up in their rooms reading books for 30 hours a week, or lifting weights for 30 hours a week, stop that too, because addiction to anything is a sign that something is "off" and probably needs to be corrected.

There is, of course, always a gray area. The human mind is a very complex thing and everybody's different. Is there a possibility that some kids who are leading totally fulfilling lives can end up slipping into "pathological gaming"? Maybe. I guess anything can be possible. A simple truth is that some people just have addictive personalities, and if it's not video games, it would be something else. People are always looking to blame someone or something for all of society's problems. Did going after Marilyn Manson after the Columbine shootings make society "better" in any way? Of course not. It's simply diluting the issue and overlooking the real problems here.

And I really think the medical community needs to be more responsible about releasing studies like this, because more often than not, it's delivered in the form of sensationalist news items like this, stories that are easily taken the wrong way by parents.

Here's the message that should be delivered to parents: If their kid is having social problems, simply taking away the one thing that's giving him or her happiness will not help them. If you just take the cocaine away from the addict, they won't get better, they'll just move onto something else. Getting to the root of why their social problems (or addictions) exist, and fixing it, should be the goal. And if parents have school-aged kids who have 4.5 hours a day or more to spend playing video games, then the parents are not doing their jobs, it's that simple. And maybe that's what this article should actually be reporting on.


  1. Playing video games DOES make you depressed. It's a fact that can't be denied. Why do people who go to the gym are typically very happy while those that sit around and do nothing (playing video games) are typically unhappy? Playing video games is not the same as reading books. Why you ask? Because when a person reads books they are trying to gain more knowledge, whereas if you sit at home and play video games who will start to lose respect for yourself.

    Slowly, you might not know it at first but you WILL start to feel like shit if you keep playing video games. This blog post sums up what I am trying to say, you should read it:

  2. First of all, thanks for the comment. Much appreciated.

    I see where you and Real Social Dynamics (sorry, I can't find the author's name,) are coming from. I completely agree that if one becomes addicted to video games, they may develop low self-esteam. Just like if someone becomes addicted to anything (like, say, heroin) they also may, over time, develop a low self-esteam. I mean, addiction is not pretty and can of course be damaging to one's self-worth...but it's been around long before video games were invented.

    I guess where I inherently disagree is with the idea that video games are the cause of this, which is something the article (and to a lesser extent, that blog post) is implying.

    Take this quote from the Real Social Dynamics blog you've linked to:

    "[Jeffy] started playing [his new Wii] and figured 'Well I've been working so hard this year, I really deserve a break and need to unplug.'
    Then, to the best of my recollection, after he continued playing it from morning 'til night for a week straight he felt like 'I'm such a piece of shit...I'd might as well just keep playing this.' "

    He says Jeffy played the Wii from morning 'till night for a week straight...but, most people don't have the time to do that. Most people have social lives, they have school, they have work, they have other things to do....why Jeffy was able to play the Wii "from morning till night for a week straight" is what we should be examining with regard to his's not the video games that are to blame. But video games became his outlet.

    Depression is a mental condition, it's one that many people spend their entire lives fighting. It's not something that's caused by "playing too many video games," it's something that people are born with and it involves how their brain chemistry works. People receive treatment through medication and therapy, but it's not something that just develops when you get a new Wii.

    Addiction is the same way. Some people may be able to drink alcohol constantly in their late teens-early 20s and never become addicted to it. They leave college then become moderate drinkers and lead productive lives, no harm done.

    Then there are people who have a few drinks and turn into alcoholics. Some people just have addictive personalities, and these mental conditions, social anxieties too, are things that are almost always present and visible early in the child's life, certainly before the age of those surveyed. I believe that parents' failure to seek help for these problems early on is what results in things like this type of "pathological gaming." There are reasons people "pathologically game" in the first place.