Monday August 4 2014
Most children in the study played video games every day
Children who play video games for up to an hour a day are more sociable, happy and less hyperactive, The Telegraph and Daily Mail report after the publication of a study on the links between gaming and behaviour.
The study involved around 5,000 young people aged 10 to 15 who were asked to report their use of computer games, as well as complete a questionnaire assessing sociability, life satisfaction, and emotional and behavioural problems.
About 75% of the participants reported playing computer games every day. Compared with adolescents who didn't play computer games, those who played for less than one hour a day reported higher levels of social behaviour and life satisfaction, and lower levels of emotional and behavioural problems. There was no difference between non-players and those who played one to three hours a day.
Meanwhile, adolescents who played more than three hours a day were found to be less social, have lower life satisfaction, and more emotional and behavioural problems than non-players.
But the study has several limitations that the media reports failed to acknowledge. The contribution of game playing in explaining the differences in behaviour between non-players and light or heavy players was tiny – less than 1.5% – suggesting that other factors (including hereditary, environmental and lifestyle factors) are likely to be having a much greater influence.
Also, because the study examined both levels of game playing and behaviour at the same time, even if there is a link between the two, it's not able to tell us the direction of the relationship – whether gaming for less than an hour a day makes adolescents happy and sociable, or whether happy, sociable adolescents are more likely to engage in low levels of play rather than none or more.
Other limitations of this cross-sectional study include only using self-report questionnaires, which may be open to the possibility of inaccuracies and biased reporting.
Overall, the author's conclusion that the findings inform policy making is possibly a little optimistic given the limited conclusions that can be drawn from these findings, especially given that gaming was "not robustly" associated with children's behaviour.
Where did the story come from?
The study was carried out by one author from the University of Oxford. No sources of financial support were received and the author declares no conflict of interest.
The Understanding Society study the data was drawn from is described as an initiative by the Economic and Social Research Council, with scientific leadership by the Institute for Social and Economic Research at the University of Essex, and survey delivery by the National Centre for Social Research.
The study was published in the peer-reviewed medical journal Paediatrics.
In general, by reporting the positive findings of this study, the media failed to mention its various limitations and that no firm conclusions can be drawn from its findings.
What kind of research was this?
This was a cross-sectional study that asked young people aged 10 to 15 years to report the number of hours a day they spend playing computer games. Researchers then asked them to complete questionnaires assessing psychological adjustment, and analysed the relationship between the two.
Psychological adjustment in this instance included aspects such as how satisfied and happy the young people were in their lives, how they related to others, and if they had emotional or behavioural problems.
The author describes how the rising use of electronic games has given cause for both concern and possible hope in their potential to influence young people. Research to date has suggested a number of positive and negative effects, but no study has examined the balance of these potential effects in a representative sample of children and adolescents.
This study aimed to explore how time spent playing electronic games is associated with psychosocial adjustment. However, this is a cross-sectional study, so while it can examine a potential relationship between the two, it can tell us nothing about whether computer games actually cause good or bad psychological adjustment.
What did the research involve?
The study used information on a large sample of 2,436 males and 2,463 females aged from 10 to 15. The data was collected as part of the UK Understanding Society household longitudinal study. This study recruited people from across the UK and included information on their electronic game use, as well as social, behavioural and health data collected through surveys.
The typical amount of time participants played electronic games was assessed through surveys asking about console-based games (such as Sony PlayStation) and computer-based games, with response options from one to six that best represented the amount of time spent playing: none, one hour, one to three hours, four to six hours, and seven or more hours.
Psychosocial problems were assessed using a validated behavioural questionnaire called the Strengths and Difficulties Questionnaire (SDQ). Participants responded on a three-point response scale (1 = "not true", 2 = "somewhat true", 3 = "very true") on a list of personal statements related to emotional symptoms, conduct problems, hyperactivity and inattention, and peer relationship problems.
An overall "internalising problems" score resulted from summing emotional and peer relationship symptoms, and "externalising problems" score from summing conduct, hyperactivity and inattention problems.
A subscale of the SDQ assessed pro-social feelings such as empathy and helpful thoughts and actions with statements such as, "I try to be nice to people. I care about their feelings". Participants were also asked to rate their level of happiness across life domains related to school and school work, their appearance, family and friends.
All analyses between game playing and psychosocial problems were adjusted for survey factors, including response rate and household location.
What were the basic results?
The study compared three levels of gaming with those who played no computer games: low players (less than one hour a day), moderate players (one to three hours a day), and high players (more than three hours a day).
Compared with non-players, light players had higher levels of pro-social behaviour and life satisfaction, and lower levels of internalising and externalising problems.
However, the effects of game playing were found to be very small, with gaming considered to account for only roughly between 0.5% and 1.3% of the variance in psychosocial factors between these groups of people.
There was no difference between non-players and moderate players.
Compared with non-players, heavy players were described as having the "mirror image of the pattern observed for light players": they had higher levels of internalising and externalising problems, and lower levels of pro-social behaviour and life satisfaction.
The effects of game playing were found to be very small, with low levels of gaming accounting for only roughly between 0.5% and 1.3% of the variance in psychosocial factors between these groups of people.
Again, the effects of game playing were found to be very small, with gaming considered to account for only roughly between 0.3% and 1.5% of the variance in psychosocial factors between these groups of people.
How did the researchers interpret the results?
The author concluded that, "Links between different levels of electronic game engagement and psychosocial adjustment were small, yet statistically significant.
"Games are consistently but not robustly associated with children's adjustment in both positive and negative ways, findings that inform policy making as well as future avenues for research in the area."
This study benefits from its large size, including a representative sample of around 5,000 adolescents from across the UK, and asking them to report their use of computer games, as well as completing a validated self-report questionnaire assessing emotional and behavioural problems.
However, the findings perhaps do not tell us very much. Compared with adolescents who don't play computer games, those who played less than one hour a day reported higher levels of sociability and life satisfaction, and lower levels of emotional and behavioural problems. There was no difference between non-players and those who played one to three hours a day.
Meanwhile, the opposite pattern was seen with adolescents who played more than three hours a day, who reported to be less social, have lower life satisfaction, and more emotional and behavioural problems than non-players.
Importantly, the contribution of game playing in explaining the differences in social, emotional and behavioural problems between non-players and light or heavy players was tiny – less than 1.5% – suggesting that other factors, including hereditary, environmental and lifestyle factors, are likely to be having a much greater influence.
Furthermore, as this is a cross-sectional study that assessed levels of game playing and psychosocial symptoms at the same time, it can't tell us anything about cause and effect – whether, for example, a light level of gaming makes you more sociable and happier with life, or whether the converse is true and people who are more sociable and happy are perhaps more likely to spend less time playing computer games, possibly with other people.
Related to that, this study is not able to tell us whether people were playing alone or with others, what sort of games they were playing, or what other interests and activities they had aside from gaming.
It also only accounted for gaming on a console or a PC, but not on a smart phone or tablet computer. This is an important limitation given the huge popularity of gaming on these devices at any time of the day or night.
As the study is only based on self-report questionnaires, it is also open to the possibility of inaccuracies and biased reporting.
Overall, the author's opinion that the findings should inform policy making is possibly a little optimistic given the limited conclusions that can be drawn from the current findings. However, larger, more reliable studies may build on this preliminary work and provide more robust evidence for decision making in the future.
Analysis by Bazian. Edited by NHS Choices. Follow Behind the Headlines on Twitter. Join the Healthy Evidence forum.