How Online Gaming Affects Childhood Mental Health

China recently announced limits on online gaming for children under 18, a move affecting 268 million children.

The new policy restricts gaming to just three hours per week, on Fridays, Saturdays, Sundays, and national holidays only.

Enforcement is handled through mandatory real-name verification and log-in system to be deployed by gaming companies.

This move came as a result of the Chinese government’s concerns about the addictive nature of gaming.

For gamers, one question they may be asking is whether there is any merit to these concerns.

While research is ongoing, here is what some of the available research shows about what is being called “internet gaming disorder.”

Internet Gaming Disorder

Internet gaming disorder describes mental health problems associated with excessive internet gaming, including: 

  • Depression
  • Social anxiety
  • Loneliness
  • Loss of relationships or career opportunities
  • Increases in risky online behavior

Failing to address these issues has been attributed to behaviors that may negatively affect a person’s daily life, especially in adolescents aged 10 to 17. These behaviors may include agreeing to meet strangers, sharing personal data, exposure to resources linked with violence, cyberpornography, participating in cyberbullying, and psychological distress. 

How well an individual can cope with excessive gaming depends on their psychological resilience. Individuals with low self esteem, depression, and low educational achievement are less likely to have the resilience necessary to avoid problems.

How to Cut Back on Gaming

Anyone struggling to cut back on gaming or other online activities should seek professional counseling. 

When seeking professional aid, your clinician may use standardized assessment tools to help develop a plan that includes “employing goal setting, behavior tracking, and functional analyses.” Furthermore, clinicians may consider “increasing alternative pleasurable activities, incentivizing specific behavior changes, and integrating caregivers into treatment when working with adolescents.”

In addition to professional help, you can also try supportive strategies. The following three strategies are outlined by HealthGamer. 

  1. Quit Cold Turkey – Possibly the least effective strategy, this method aims to “deprive” you of the dopamine hit you get from gaming to retrain your brain to live with lower levels of dopamine. To be successful, you will need to delete all games and social media apps, and hide your computer if that is an option. At the same time, try to find real world activities, like a sport, to participate in to keep your mind busy. Additional aid may be possible with formulas geared towards focus, like those from BrainMD and Quicksilver Scientific. This can take at least two weeks.
  2. Slowly Reduce Gaming Time – This method sees you reducing your gaming time in small chunks. While gaming, come to a stopping point and do something productive for 15 minutes. This can include cleaning, going for a walk, or trying a new hobby. After a few days, increase time spent away from gaming to 30 minutes, and so on over the coming months.
  3. Find Alternative Interests -This method sees you finding a competing interest that offers a similar dopamine hit as gaming, but is seen as more productive and beneficial. People with addictive tendencies may not be able to simply stop playing video games without having someone equivalent to keep their interest. This can take time to figure out and may require you to learn about addiction and overcome it.

Final Thoughts

Gaming is a form of entertainment that people can use to socialize, reduce stress, or find joy. 

However, too much gaming can harm anyone’s life, including children.

At the critical stages of early childhood development, gaming may become a contributor to risky behaviors or may have a role in negative cognitive health. Seeking alternatives to gaming, reducing overall game time, and finding clinical treatment for underlying issues like depression may help alleviate or prevent some of these issues.

While there is no clear answer to how excessive gaming can affect an individuals, internet gaming disorder is included in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders as a condition that warrants further research to understand its impact.

Whether China will adjust their restriction in the future is unknown, but many critics and gamers are watching to see how this impacts the gaming industry and the individuals that it affects.