There’s nothing like flipping on your favorite video game after a long day at school. 60 percent of Americans play video games daily. But while it may seem like a benign method of relaxation, playing video games has significant effects on your behavior. A wealth of recent scientific evidence shows that playing video games too often, especially ones with gratuitous violence, can cause serious psychological problems.
Playing video games causes your brain to release dopamine. Dopamine is important for learning and concentration, but it is also the same chemical released when people do drugs like cocaine. If you spend too much time playing video games you could develop a gaming disorder.
The World Health Organization defines a gaming disorder as “a pattern of gaming behavior characterized by impaired control over gaming, increasing priority given over other activities to the extent that gaming takes precedence over other interests and daily activities, and continuation or escalation of gaming despite the occurrence of negative consequences.”
In other words, if you can’t stop playing League of Legends because you’re stressed about finals you might have a problem. The best thing to do is put the game down and study. If you make a habit of avoidance, the problems you ignore will pile up and consume you.
A comprehensive study from the Journal of Health Psychology shows that gaming disorders are linked to greater levels of loneliness, anxiety, depression, sleeping problems, social problems and many other psychological-social problems.
If you suffer from any of these problems, you are not helpless. Negative emotion is how your brain makes you aware that something’s off. If you ignore the problems at the root of your malaise, they only get worse.
For example, while it’s true that depression is caused by a chemical imbalance there are many steps you can take to fix this without having to take pharmaceuticals. An analysis of dietary patterns and depression risk shows that a diet of fruits, vegetables, fish, low-fat dairy and other healthy foods decreases the risk of depression. Exercise and sleep patterns are also linked to a healthy chemical balance in the brain.
Sedentary behavior, such as playing video games excessively, increases your risk for health problems. These health problems exacerbate the psychological problems caused by playing video games. If you have health problems because of poor diet or exercise the best thing to do is go to the gym. It doesn’t matter what you look like—just get in there and do something. If you don’t want to go to a gym you can do push-ups, sit-ups, dips, crunches and squats without leaving the house. Just put aside at least an hour every day for exercise and you’ll notice an improvement in your mood, health and overall well-being.
Video games can also make us more aggressive. According to a report from the APA, “research demonstrates a consistent relation between violent video game use and increases in aggressive behavior, aggressive cognitions and aggression.”
One study shows that areas of the frontal lobe, the region associated with decision making and cognitive function, gets deactivated after playing video games. This can also cause an increase in aggressive behavior.
Aggressive behavior is not conducive to good relationships. If you know somebody who is depressed, anxious, angry and playing a lot of video games they should probably get help. Playing more video games only pushes people deeper into the cycle of a gaming disorder.
Activating the dopamine reward system can be a good thing if done properly. Releasing dopamine reinforces behavior and allows us to learn things. An article in Psychology Today states, “Video games that are designed for progression to appropriate levels based on player mastery allow each player to participate at their individualized achievement level. This achievement level is key to motivating perseverance in academics, sports, musical instruments and other forms of learning that require effort and practice.”
The energy a person spends playing video games could be better spent somewhere else. Like drugs, video games artificially increase dopamine levels in the brain without providing you with any skills. You get all the psychological rewards of winning a basketball game or learning piano without any of the real, tangible rewards.
A sense of accomplishment is something that we earn. If somebody trains themselves to dunk a basketball that means they had to spend hours jumping, running and dribbling. Practicing this skill improves their health, so this activity is psychologically and physically rewarding. You’re less likely to become obese or suffer from health problems if you spend your time developing skills that rely on physical ability.
If you want to counteract the negative effects of playing video games, try playing music. Instead of deactivating parts of the brain, music has been shown to improve cognitive function. According to another recent study, learning to play music can improve verbal memory and reading ability. Also, listening to music can improve your mood if you are depressed or anxious. So next time you feel like playing some computer game, pick up an instrument instead.
Developing skills can create a lasting sense of accomplishment. Playing video games gives you a temporary feeling of pleasure that will fade unless you keep playing. If you look down one day and realize you are overweight, it’s simply because you’ve committed yourself to a screen.
If you use video games for social interaction this could still be unhealthy. Studies show that face-to-face human interaction is more likely to reduce depression than conversations over the phone or by writing. If you have friends online, try to get together with them IRL and see what it’s like. Maybe you can play basketball or go on a hike together.
If video games are your only source of joy and relaxation, it’s probably best if you throw them away. It isn’t that hard. Once you’ve freed your mind from the electronic screen-prison you’ll notice a significant change in your attitude, your relationships and your health. Take control of your life and push yourself to be better, stronger, smarter and happier. You can do it!