In a show of confirmation bias, I typed into a popular search engine ‘gaming is bad for you’ and the highlighted result reads:
“Excessive gaming can have a significant negative impact on relationships, education, career, sleep, mental and physical health, stress, maladaptive coping, and a negative impact on other important life areas.”
That sounds authoritative, conclusive and very worrying so I should probably limit my son’s gaming activity to 30 minutes a week and sell his Xbox to the highest bidder. However, if I read the linked article, it soon becomes apparent that the key words here are ‘excessive’ and ‘can’. As the article rightly concludes, “all individuals are unique and so every individual will have their own unique experience with gaming and the impact gaming has on their mental health”. Although there are age ratings to provide guidance about appropriate games based on content, there is no hard and fast rule that can be simply applied by parents or guardians to guarantee that young people in their care don’t experience the potential negative consequences of excessive gaming – but how do we know if gaming is excessive?
An interesting research study published in 2021 by the Oxford Internet Institute and the Centre of Psychiatry Research concludes that “the impact of time spent playing video games on wellbeing is likely too small to be subjectively noticeable and not credibly different from zero”. This study involved objectively tracking the gameplay habits of almost 40,000 individual gamers and was specifically focused on the amount of time spent playing and so it notes “it is essential to cast a wider and deeper empirical and theoretical net and focus on the qualities of play experiences, in-game events, and players for whom effects may vary”. In other words, it is not a simple matter of limiting or promoting gameplay based on time alone – it is a more nuanced and individual matter.
There are some parallels to draw here with social media. For example, one can conclude that ‘social media is good’ or ‘social media is bad’ but the reality is that it is neither; it has the potential to be harmful depending on who is using it, how it is used, abused, managed and understood.
Other than providing a convenient label, it also makes little sense to talk about ‘video gaming’ or ‘social media’ because they are nebulous terms – there is clear variation between different social media platforms and video games – who they are targeted at, how they are used, differences in content, moderation, privacy controls and policies, etc.
For example, while most games by definition contain some form of reward mechanism for completing or progressing through the game, there is a world of difference between playing a quick game of Wordle on your phone and playing a massively multiplayer online game such as Final Fantasy on a games console or VR headset. Furthermore, the boundaries between social media, gaming and gambling are blurred – messaging, voice and video communications are often integral to online multiplayer games and the promotion and sale of extension packs, limited-edition avatar skins, in-game currency, or the potential to trade gameplay for financial or other real-life rewards. These add ‘pay to play’ and ‘pay to win’ elements that can result in players paying several times over or continuously to remove advertising, make faster progress, or potentially win prizes that may be unavailable to ‘regular’ players. The dopamine hit that results from winning when combined with the potential to win faster by making payments or playing ‘just one more game’ is a compelling and potentially addictive lure that may promote thinking and behaviours similar to those of someone with a gambling addiction.
How does the Digital Youth Index help to inform our understanding of gaming and wellbeing?
The Digital Youth Index is not designed to study the effects of gaming with scientific rigour, but the survey does contain questions about ownership and access to games consoles, VR headsets, how often young people play online games, and how often they watch others playing video games online.
These questions can be analysed alongside the demographic data that is collected to define ‘gamers’ and ‘non-gamers’ groups that can then be used to explore differences in responses to other questions by people in these groups, such as questions about digital skills and wellbeing.
It is a complex picture though, because while there may be differences in responses between ‘gamers’ and ‘non-gamers’, we cannot necessarily tie these differences back to gaming since there may be other underlying differences that would need to be factored out of the equation first – such as household income, age or mental health issues. We also lack sufficient detail about the types of online games being played, social interactions and experiences when playing those games, and details about any privacy or parental controls that are in place. However, we can still make some interesting observations that reflect the experiences of young people living in the UK today.
This article explores the following questions:
47% of young people spend time playing online games.
Among the sample of 8–25-year-olds responding to the Digital Youth Index survey, 47% said they typically spend time using digital devices to play online games. To understand who they are we looked at some of the differences between these respondents and others.
For example, there are significantly more boys/young men than girls/young women playing online (51% vs. 42%) and a skew towards 8-to-10-year-olds (53%). There are also some socio-economic differences with a slightly higher prevalence of online gaming evident among young people in the C2DE social grade (49% vs. 46% among ABC1) but a lower prevalence among young people who are in receipt of free school meals (46% vs. 52% among young people who don’t receive free meals).
This highlights the point above, i.e. while there may be differences in wellbeing between ‘gamers’ and ‘non-gamers’, there may be other factors at play that mean we cannot draw firm conclusions about the impact of gaming.
87% of young gamers play online at least three times a week.
Another way of exploring the data is to consider the amount of time spent playing online games to see if there are differences in wellbeing between those who play online games at least once a day and those who play less frequently. In fact, the Digital Youth Index data shows that the majority of young people who play online games do so at least 3 times a week:
When profiling those who play online games on a daily basis, we find the same demographic and socio-economic differences, e.g. boys/young men are more likely to be ‘everyday gamers’ (62%) than their female counterparts (54%) and the same is true by social grade (63% C2DE vs. 55% ABC1).
72% of gamers are happy with the amount of time they spend on digital devices.
Putting aside for a moment the other differences that exist between young people who are into online gaming and have sufficient access to devices and connectivity to pursue it, and those who do not, there are some interesting differences in their responses to the Digital Youth Index wellbeing questions. For example, gamers (47% of the Digital Youth Index sample) are significantly more likely to report being happy with the amount of time they spend on their devices (72% vs. 65% of non-gamers). Furthermore, gamers who report being happy with the time they spend on their devices are more likely to play games every day (60%) than those who say they are unhappy with the time they spend on their devices (where only 51% are everyday gamers).
We can only speculate from this data what lies behind these differences in happiness; whether those who are less happy would like to spend more or less time online and if this relates to gaming or other considerations such as the need to learn, work, shop, socialise, etc.
Young gamers spend 32 hours a week on their digital devices.
How much time are young people spending on digital devices and what impact might this be having on their wellbeing? Although we ask young people how often they play online games we do not ask them to estimate how many hours they spend gaming. However, we do ask them to estimate how many hours they spend on their digital devices on a typical weekday and at the weekend (whether for gaming or other purposes).
This shows that, on average, young people estimate they spend 4.0 hours per day on digital devices during the working week and this increases to 4.9 hours per day at the weekend. Perhaps unsurprisingly, these estimates are higher among gamers, who spend an average of 4.3 hours per day during the working week (vs. 3.8 hours among non-gamers) and 5.3 hours per day at weekends (vs. 4.0 hours among non-gamers). This means that, on average, during a typical week young gamers spend 32 hours on their digital devices, which is 5 hours more per week than their non-gaming peers – an additional 3-4 weeks a year if we allow time to eat and sleep!1
To reiterate, this doesn’t mean that this time is necessarily spent gaming – and no judgement is attached to this data – it could merely indicate that young people who are into gaming are also more likely to be digitally engaged and have access to the online world and other digital devices than their non-gaming peers. This discrepancy in time spent online really emphasises the scale of difference between those with digital access and those without, or with limited access, and how the online experiences of young people differ depending on their personal circumstances.
6 in 10 young people under the age of 16 have time limits imposed.
Considering the number of hours that can be spent online, the next question is about the extent to which this is limited by parents or guardians – particularly when thinking about young children and teens.
Among those aged under 16 years, the Digital Youth Index data shows no significant difference between non-gamers and gamers, even if they play on a daily basis. On the whole, nearly 6 in 10 young people under the age of 16 have restrictions imposed on them by their parents or guardians to limit the amount of time they spend on their digital devices.
So, bearing in mind that many young people do not have the freedom to decide how much time they spend online – due to device or connection limits or restrictions put in place by parents or guardians – would they like to spend more or less time on their devices in their ideal world?
There is a slight tendency towards young people wanting to spend less time on their digital devices.
The Digital Youth Index shows an almost equal split between young people who would like to spend more time on their digital devices, those who would like to spend less time, and those who are happy with their current situation. This may reflect a digital divide but will also reflect attitudinal and behavioural differences. Overall, there is a slight tendency towards young people wanting to spend less time rather than more on their devices (36% vs. 31%) but this difference is not that marked:
The story changes slightly when looking at responses to this question within the ‘gamers’ and ‘non-gamers’ groups. Gamers are less likely to want to spend less time on their devices (33% vs. 38% of non-gamers) but this is still a fairly even split between the three possible responses.
Among those who play online games every day, nearly 4 in 10 (38%) state that they don’t want to change how much time they spend on their devices, which is significantly higher than non-gamers (32%) and they are even less likely to want to spend less time on their devices (31% vs. 38% of non-gamers). We cannot be certain that gaming is the ‘hook’ here, but the data holds true.
Most gamers think their use of digital technology has either no impact or a positive impact on their wellbeing.
Moving beyond the amount of time spent on digital devices, the Digital Youth Index considers several aspects of digital wellbeing: impact on relationships with family and friends, work and schoolwork, physical and mental health, the amount of sleep that an individual gets, and general feelings about happiness and social life.
Looking across the whole Digital Youth Index sample, the most common response is that use of the internet and digital devices has no impact on other areas of life; although comparing positive and negative responses, the net response is that the use of digital devices has a positive impact, especially when looking at the claimed impact on friendships and schoolwork.
Response among gamers is similar, i.e. they perceive their use of the internet and digital technologies as having either no impact or a positive impact on various aspects of their life. However, there are some significant differences when comparing gamers and non-gamers, e.g. gamers are less likely to consider their use of technology as having a positive impact on their family relationships (36% vs. 44% of non-gamers):
Gamers are also less likely to state that their use of digital devices has a positive impact on their mental health – although again we need to remember that this question isn’t specific to their use of devices for gaming but is more generally about their use of digital devices:
There are also significant differences when asking about the impact of technology on the amount of sleep that they get, with gamers more likely to state that it has a negative impact (36% vs. 31% of non-gamers), even though overall both groups are most likely to state that it has no impact:
What we are unable to infer from this data is whether these responses are based on their own experiences or whether they are influenced by the opinions of their parents, guardians and the media that they are exposed to, i.e. they are giving the responses that they think we want to hear.
70% of online gamers are happy with life.
Most of the young people taking part in the Digital Youth Index survey state that they’re happy with life in general, (2 in 3 or 66%) but this is higher among gamers (69% compared to 63% of non-gamers). Gamers are also significantly less likely to report feeling isolated from others (31% feel isolated vs. 38% of non-gamers) and more likely to agree that being online helps them to keep in touch with friends (76% vs. 71% of non-gamers).
These differences in response to the Digital Youth Index wellbeing statements are even more apparent among gamers who play online games every day with 70% of them generally happy with life. What we can’t infer is a causal relationship between gaming and wellbeing – but again this highlights not only that gamers tend to have a different demographic and socio-economic makeup to non-gamers but also that there tend to be differences in their overall wellbeing – with gamers, on average, feeling happier and less prone to feelings of social isolation:
In the interests of balance, I have searched up ‘gaming is good for you’ and so here is the counter to my opening statement:
“The positive effects of video games are numerous, from better memory and problem-solving to improved mood and social skills. While those who don’t play video games may argue that they make you lazy, harm your brain or ruin your social life, video games actually have many physical, cognitive and social benefits.”
In conclusion, the Digital Youth Index provides some interesting insights into the different lived experiences of young people in the digital world and the impact on various aspects of their wellbeing.
While we are unable to provide conclusive evidence of video games being ‘good’ or ‘bad’ for the wellbeing of young people, we can clearly demonstrate that there are both potential benefits – such as keeping in touch with friends – and risks – such as negatively impacting on mental health and sleep – associated with the use of digital technologies. At the heart of it, we must keep in mind the complexity of the individual and multitude of other factors that impact on a person’s wellbeing and avoid the temptation to oversimplify the debate.
You can explore the data around digital safety, and all the pillars of the Digital Youth Index, using our data tool.
1 The Digital Youth Index data is claimed (based on survey responses) so it is prone to errors of estimation and reporting. It may be underestimated because, according to Ofcom’s online nation research (2022) 18-24 year olds spend an average of 5 hours 6 minutes online each day: https://www.ofcom.org.uk/__data/assets/pdf_file/0023/238361/online-nation-2022-report.pdf.