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It seems the debate over video games will never end — are they good for your health, or can they be damaging? 

Unfortunately, it’ll never end because the answer is… both. 

Video games have a lot of physical and mental health benefits. They can improve coordination, problem-solving skills, and help with socialization. From a mental health standpoint, gaming can cause healthy brain stimulation, and some people use it as an effective way to combat stress and fight back against isolation and loneliness. 

However, long-term gaming can also lead to mental health ailments that can potentially grow over time. 

That doesn’t mean you need to put down your controller or step away from your PC entirely, but if you spend hours each day in front of a screen playing video games, it’s important to understand the potential mental health risks. The more you know about how your gaming lifestyle could be affecting you, the easier it will be to determine if you need to cut back and focus on your mental well-being. 

So, what are some of the mental health issues that can arise from prolonged gaming? 

The Mental and Physical Connection

Despite some of the physical benefits that can come with gaming, there are some drawbacks that could closely link to the state of your mental health. Studies have shown that playing video games — especially before bedtime — can moderately decrease the quality of sleep a person gets. This can be especially problematic for kids and teenagers who need a certain amount of sleep for proper development. It can also impact adults and their mental health. 

Inadequate sleep has been linked to a variety of mental health issues, and it can exacerbate the symptoms of existing ones, including:

  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Bipolar disorder

Not getting enough sleep can also make it harder to handle stress throughout the day. Minor setbacks can start to feel like major problems, and you might have a more difficult time coping with things that shouldn’t affect you so much. 

Unfortunately, a lack of sleep can create a vicious cycle when it comes to your mental health. The less sleep you get, the more your symptoms of anxiety and depression can act up. The more anxious or depressed you are, the harder it is to get enough sleep. 

If you tend to do most of your gaming at night, try cutting things off at least an hour before you plan on going to sleep. Try to avoid electronics completely during that time so your mind and body can wind down and understand that it’s time to sleep, rather than time to be stimulated. 

Increased Stress Levels

As stated above, many people use video games as a way to relax and de-stress. However, depending on the type of games you’re playing, you could be adding unnecessary stress to your life. You might even be dealing with “gaming anxiety.” 

Games that are high in intensity, violent, or have high stakes can contribute to your stress levels. Multiplayer games can also cause a lot of stress. You might feel disappointed if you let your team down, or embarrassed about something you did that caused your group to lose. 

Too much stress can quickly lead to anxiety or depression, and make you feel even more on-edge each time you log on to play. If that sounds familiar, consider trying a different game genre, or taking a break from gaming for a while. 

Social Isolation

Video games can be a great way to connect with like-minded people and feel like you’re a part of something bigger than yourself. However, gaming can also lead to social isolation. If you never actually see the players you’re interacting with and never plan on meeting any of them in “real life,” you’re dealing with parasocial relationships. That’s a one-sided relationship that can’t be reciprocated. The more you’re deprived of actual human connection, the more you’ll crave these types of relationships. 

Video games are more immersive than ever. Many of them can make you feel like you’ve stepped into a completely different world, so it’s easy to lose your sense of self, and your sense of reality for a while. 

However, the more appealing these worlds become, the less appealing the real world can be. When you’re gaming, so much more is in your control. You’re more likely to be interested in what you’re doing, and you’re more likely to connect with other players who share similar interests. That can lead to isolation and avoidance when it comes to forming real, healthy relationships. Some of the most common signs of social isolation include:

  • Avoiding social interactions
  • Canceling plans often
  • Having a hard time connecting with people
  • Feeling anxiety when you know you have to interact with others

You might be too wrapped up in your gaming lifestyle to notice, at first, but this way of living can lead to extreme loneliness. It can cause mood changes, crush your self-esteem, make you feel hopeless, and lead to both depression and anxiety. Some people might turn to things like substance abuse or other forms of self-harm to combat those feelings, which is why it’s so important to recognize the differences between gaming relationships and real-world interaction. Talking to someone, looking for activities you might enjoy, or signing up for classes that interest you are all great ways to combat loneliness and spend less time gaming. 

Digital Burnout

You’ve probably heard of burnout before when it comes to working too much or taking on too many things at once. Digital burnout is similar — it refers to fatigue or distress caused by the prolonged use of digital devices. It can cause difficulty sleeping, decreased energy, and harmful physical effects. From a mental health standpoint, digital burnout can lead to cognitive problems and excess stress. 

Kids and adults alike can experience this type of burnout nowadays from spending too much time in front of screens. If you have children who already spend much of their free time playing video games, you can help them by limiting the amount of screen time they’re allowed each day. Encourage them to focus on a healthy lifestyle and take part in other activities that contribute to brain stimulation — including spending time outside. 

If you’re the one feeling burnt out, the same rules apply. Step away from the screens as often as possible, and take breaks to do other enriching activities that will stimulate your mind and boost your mood. 

One of the best things you can do to combat digital burnout is to spend time outside yourself — it’s not just for kids! It’s no secret that spending time in nature can improve your mental health. Some of the benefits include:

  • An improved mood
  • More energy
  • A boost in your self-esteem and confidence
  • Reduced stress

In some cases, you may need to undergo a “digital detox” to fully recover from burnout. That looks different for everyone (especially if you use digital devices for work), but it involves eliminating digital devices from your life as much as possible for a set period of time. While it might sound extreme at first, you’ll quickly see how different your life can be without feeling “controlled” by electronics. You’re the one in charge when it comes to gaming. Don’t let the game control you. If it feels like things are starting to steer that way, it’s a good sign that it’s time to back away for a while. 

While you shouldn’t ignore the positive mental health benefits of video games, make sure you’re not overlooking some of the prolonged risks if you’re gaming frequently. Keep these ideas in mind to make sure you’re not taking things too far. The more you understand about these risks, the more in control you’ll be of your gaming habits — including knowing when to take a break. 

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