Video Games and Anxiety: What You Need to Know

By: Christine Ohannessian, PhD

New research, brought to light by Connecticut Children’s Medical Center’s Center for Behavioral Health, takes a look at the relationship between playing video games and anxiety during adolescence. The research, titled “Video game play and anxiety during late adolescence: The moderating effects of gender and social context,” published in the Journal of Affective Disorders, included older adolescents (11th and 12th grade students) and found that boys who played video games the most had the lowest levels of anxiety, whereas girls who played video games the most had the highest levels of anxiety.

These results are consistent with another research study from the Center for Behavioral Health, which found the same pattern in younger adolescents (9th and 10th grade students). Taken together, the results from these studies suggest that playing video games actually may be beneficial for boys.

So why would this be the case?

It may be that playing video games provides social support for boys, more so than for girls. Many adolescents who play video games form friendships while playing. Data from the Pew Research Center (Lenhart et al., 2015) indicate that about 75% of adolescents who play games online with others daily have made friends online and that boys are more likely to make friends online than are girls (Lenhart et al., 2015). Data from the CBH suggest that the social connectedness that playing video games may provide may yield psychological benefits, especially for boys. In the CBH study, boys who played video games the most, and who played with others (versus alone), had the lowest levels of anxiety.

Playing video games also may provide a means of coping and mental disengagement for boys. Becoming immersed in a video game may allow an adolescent to at least temporarily escape from their problems. Boys also may be more likely to become immersed in their game playing than are girls. This difference likely is related to the different types of games boys and girls play.

In the CBH study, the effect of playing video games alone versus with others also differed for boys and girls. Boys were the least anxious when playing with others. However, consistent with the 2009 study, girls who played video games the most reported the highest levels of anxiety, especially if they played with others. It may be that competition that is part of many games is more stressful for girls than for boys. In addition, many online games that involve others are violent. Girls do not enjoy violent interactive games with others, whereas boys typically do enjoy such games (Lin, 2010). Such interactions with others may result in increases in levels of stress and anxiety for girls.

Findings from the CBH studies on video game play suggest that playing video games may be more stressful and anxiety-provoking for girls than for boys. However, they also suggest that playing video games may have social and psychological benefits for boys. Of course, as is true for most behaviors, moderation is the key.

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