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Illustration: PGN

The U.S. is experiencing a youth mental health crisis, with 42 percent of high school students reporting persistent feelings of sadness and hopelessness in 2021. Despite the growing numbers of young people facing mental health challenges, most do not receive mental health treatment

Gaming—which involves playing video or electronic games on a console, computer, or other device—could support youth and young adults who are struggling, says a recent study from The Public Good Projects (PGP).

PGP, the health nonprofit that owns Public Good News, researched the role gaming plays in the mental health of youth and young adult gamers. It analyzed social listening data and conducted interviews with gamers, mental health experts, and gaming experts to produce the report, “Harnessing the Power of Gaming to Combat the Youth Mental Health Crisis.” 

Published by the Ruderman Family Foundation in October, the report includes recommendations for gaming companies, adults, and young gamers that champion gaming as a tool for connection and mental health management.

Read on to learn what the research found, including benefits and challenges of gaming and recommendations for gamers and their nongamer loved ones that may help support young gamers’ mental health.

Benefits of gaming

  • Stress relief: PGP research found that gaming can be a coping mechanism to help young people deal with stress. Focusing on a game allows gamers to disconnect from present concerns.
  • Socialization: While nongamers may think of gaming as a solitary activity, PGP found 83 percent of U.S. gamers play with others. Gaming gathers people with similar interests and goals, strengthens existing relationships with family and friends who game, and fosters new friendships with other gamers across demographics.
  • Skill development: Gaming can help young people develop new skills, such as leadership and problem-solving. PGP’s interviewees also shared that reaching goals in gaming has improved their self-esteem.

Challenges of gaming

  • Harassment: While the gaming space can be a supportive environment, PGP found that online bullying and harassment persist in the community. Women and LGBTQ+ gamers are more likely to be targets of harassment, which can lead to discomfort, depression, and even post-traumatic stress disorder.
  • Developing unhealthy gaming habits: Games are designed to keep players engaged, and some interviewees reported that gaming can be a distraction from other responsibilities.

Parents, educators, and other trusted adults play an important role in supporting young gamers’ mental health, but nongamer adults may need help understanding how to best provide that support. Here are PGP’s recommendations for nongamer adults:

Reframe misconceptions about gaming

Nongamers who don’t understand the outcomes of gaming may consider the hobby a waste of time or make negative comments that exacerbate gamers’ mental health challenges. Experts PGP interviewed recommend that nongamers think of gaming as a form of “purposeful play” in which gamers learn new skills and decompress.

Learn about games

Parents and adults with young gamers in their lives must educate themselves about the risks and benefits of games. Reading content labels, game reviews, or the Entertainment Software Rating Board’s Family Gaming Guide can help adults understand the role games play in young peoples’ lives.

Enforce healthy gaming habits

Half of PGP’s gaming interviewees said adults play an important role in enforcing healthy gaming habits. Adults can help young gamers prioritize essential tasks and manage time spent gaming by setting specific times for gaming, using screen time control, and keeping gaming devices out of the bedroom.

One-third of the mental health experts PGP interviewed said parents and educators should take a harm reduction approach to establishing healthy gaming habits by regulating time spent gaming rather than banning it. Banning gaming could exacerbate mental health issues in young gamers who use gaming for mood regulation and socialization.

In addition to seeking guidance from trusted adults, young gamers can take charge of their own gaming experience to ensure that their hobby supports their mental health. Here are PGP’s recommendations for young gamers.

Practice healthy gaming habits

PGP’s gaming interviewees suggested using separate rooms and devices for work and play if possible and taking screen breaks throughout a gaming session. They also suggested taking breaks from gaming communities where gamers are experiencing harassment or negative feelings.

Prevent and address toxicity and harassment

PGP’s report recommends that gamers play with people they know in private groups or servers to avoid online harassment. Gamers who encounter toxicity should speak up and report what they’ve witnessed and remove themselves from gaming environments that are causing them distress.

Read PGP’s full report on the Ruderman Family Foundation’s website to learn more about gaming and mental health.

If you or anyone you know is considering suicide or self-harm or is anxious, depressed, upset, or needs to talk, call the Suicide & Crisis Lifeline at 988 or text the Crisis Text Line at 741-741. For international resources, here is a good place to begin.