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A new study published by University of Oxford researchers in an open-access journal, JMIR Pediatrics and Parenting, shows that although many school-age adolescents are spending considerable time gaming, it is not having a negative impact on their wellbeing.

  • Almost one-third of students reported spending at least 3.5 hours each day playing games.
  • Most of these “heavy” gamers did not report any wellbeing issues with nearly half reporting better wellbeing than those who play games less or not at all
  • A small proportion (1 in 12) reported low wellbeing and loss of control over gaming. They are more likely to be female and mobile phone gamers with a history of aggressive behaviour, anxiety, or experience of abuse. 

The OxWell Student Survey is one of the largest school surveys of adolescent health and wellbeing in England. More than 12,000 secondary school-aged students (12-18 years) took part in the latest survey in June-July 2021 and provided information on how much they game.  

Almost one-third (31.2%) of students that answered questions on their gaming reported spending at least 3.5 hours each day playing games on any electronic device (‘heavy’ gamers), but a fifth (21.8%) reported not engaging in any gaming. The study identified different profiles of adolescents who game for longer periods of time based on their psychological wellbeing, how much time they spent playing games on different electronic devices, and how much control they have over their gaming behaviours. They found that most of the ‘heavy’ gamers were experiencing no negative effects with regards to their well-being and 44% of ‘heavy’ gamers reported higher wellbeing than those who play games less or do not play them at all.

Lead author Dr Simona Skripkauskaite, Oxford Departments of Experimental Psychology and Psychiatry, said:

“Our findings suggest that there is a change in how adolescents are spending their free time with a substantial proportion choosing to spend most of this time playing video games. It is reassuring to see that, for most, this is not related to co-occurring wellbeing issues or mental ill-health. These findings suggest that, rather than worrying about the time spent playing video games, we should explore the opportunity of video gaming as a potential tool to find more affordable, creative and less stigmatising ways to reach and help adolescents experiencing emotional and behavioural difficulties.”

The study highlights, however, that this was not the case for everybody. 1 in 12 adolescents who were ‘heavy’ gamers did report a loss of control over gaming and wellbeing issues. They were more likely to be female and report gaming on their mobile phones. They were also, however, more likely to report previous experiences of abuse or anxiety and aggressive behaviours, suggesting that those with traumatic experiences and mental health issues may turn to gaming as a coping mechanism.

Co-author Mina Fazel, Professor of Adolescent Psychiatry at the University of Oxford Department of Psychiatry, said:

"Our findings are similar to those in adult gaming populations and highlight that the majority are not experiencing negative effects gaming. There is, however, an important subgroup of adolescents who are more likely to show signs of problematic use of gaming and lower mental health, and these findings can help us better identify these young people who are more likely to be females who are playing on their phones.”

This research was funded by the National Institute for Health and Care Research Applied Research Collaboration Oxford and Thames Valley at Oxford Health NHS Foundation Trust and the Westminster Foundation.

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