MMO Family: Are video games stressing kids out?

Karen Bryan
K. Bryan|05.01.13

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MMO Family: Are video games stressing kids out?
MMO Family  Are video games stressing kids out
Video games get blamed for all sorts of societal problems, particularly for young children. Violence, obesity, and laziness are just the tip of the iceberg. And a recent article from Amanda Enayati adds one more potential problem: stress.

Growing up is complicated enough, but are video games making it even harder to be a happy, relaxed kid? Enayati, CNN Health's stress columnist and the technology and stress correspondent for PBS MediaShift, says it's complicated but points to a few studies that argue the pros and cons. Let's take a look at the debate over whether video games might be too stressful for children.

Enayati prefaces her article by saying that she first heard the topic of video games and stress come up at a conference, where, ironically, she was set to give a talk about how video games are helping athletes and soldiers better manage stress, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress. But the question came up about the effects of heightened, persistent stress from a video game session. How would that affect a young child who plays for an hour or more a day? Studies have shown links to high stress and negative health effects like high blood pressure, heart disease, and even depression, so can the stress of gaming bring these on even earlier?

Stress can be good

Chris Ferguson, chair of the psychology and communication department at Texas A&M International University, argues that the question is inconclusive at best and that more likely, gaming doesn't play a major role in causing health problems from stress. He points out that there's a gap between the data that we have and the way that it's interpreted and that researchers often end up "responding to the greater social milieu and political pressure." He adds that there is stress in gaming, but it's a good kind of stress, similar to what one would experience playing a sport or reading a captivating book. But he stresses that a video game can be positive or negative "depending on how people use it and the state of mind they are in when they come to play."

Gaming is a health hazard

Meanwhile, Brad Bushman, professor of psychology and communication at Ohio State University, disagrees strongly, saying that the research conclusively points to video games causing aggression, increased anger, decreased empathy, and stress. Bushman cites a 2010 analysis of 136 papers that studied over 130,000 gamers worldwide, including men and women, young and old. That meta-analysis found a strong correlation between gaming and heightened levels of stress, including high blood pressure and increased heart rate.

Locked-in syndrome

A third voice in the conversation comes from Dr. Rajita Sinha, director of the Yale Stress Center and professor of psychiatry, neurobiology and child study at Yale University School of Medicine. She believes that the data are still inconclusive, but she recommends caution when it comes to kids and gaming. She says that when you're focused on one activity for long sessions, it begins to feel like an "ongoing stresser." If gaming begins to be a highly demanding activity that saps our attention, it can have a negative effect on our frontal lobes, which are responsible for decision-making and attention. This is called locked-in syndrome, she adds, and it can have the same effect as an addiction. For kids, this can be particularly problematic because they're still developing the parts of the brain that are responsible for good judgement and ability to focus.

MMO Family  Are video games stressing kids out
Researcher opinions are all over the map, so the best answer is, as always, balance and moderation. It's probably easy to say that anyone, regardless of age, will suffer negative effects from overly long gaming sessions (or overly long anything sessions). But it's not easy to say that one particular game is worse than another. A combat-heavy, even violent video game can actually be a de-stresser for veterans. And the stressful challenges of endgame MMOs can lead to that iconic picture of a kid on the verge of an epic win, along with all the good things that come with it, as Jane McGonigal summed up so well.

Enayati ends with an interesting question, which is whether gaming is the root cause of stress and other negative effects or those effects are rooted in something well beyond into technology itself. As devices become more and more sophisticated, do they potentially play a role in an increase in ADHD and obsessive compulsive disorder? These are questions that have yet to be answered but are important to consider.

We know that MMOs, and video games in general, can be a positive part of a growing child's life. At their best, they can teach and foster creativity in young minds, and we can see plenty of amazing things that kids have done while online. But as the article points out, children are still developing, and at least some of the data point to video games as hindering that development, particularly when it comes to attention and judgment. Every child is different, and what one kid might find stressful in a video game, another might not be affected by at all. As usual, parents are the best equipped to evaluate their children's experiences with gaming; parents are the frontline in determining what their kids are ready for and what they should avoid until later in life. While the issue of gaming and stress is still up for debate, parents can size up the best balance of gaming in a child's life.

The MMO Family column is devoted to common issues with families and gaming. Every other week, Karen looks at current trends and ways to balance family life and play. She also shares her impressions of MMO titles to highlight which ones are child-friendly and which ones offer great gaming experiences for young and old alike. You are welcome to send feedback or Wonka Bars to
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