Children, Mental Illness & Video Games

Photography by Mykl Roventine

I hesitated to use the above title, because I can imagine my gamer audience rolling their eyes already.  Bear with me please, it’s not what you think.

A new study has come out reporting that children are using video games “pathologically,” and that this is a global problem.  The study, summarized here, reported that out of a sample of 3,034 children, 9% of them could be considered “pathological” in their play, which the researchers found “some serious problems – including depression, anxiety, social phobias and lower school performance – seemed to be outcomes of their pathological play.”  And so the media has already begun to hype this up as video games cause mental illness in children, as well as video game addiction is a problem.

So let’s think this through together.

First, there is the problem of cultural translation.  The study was conducted in Singapore, and as one of the researchers acknowledges, “”In the US, we didn’t follow the kids across time, so we don’t know where that threshold is across each culture or if there is a certain amount that is too much.”  And we also don’t know the cultural variables when we compare Singapore, a city-state, with other countries.  Children in urban areas often play more video games due to the safety concerns of living in an urban area.

But more importantly, let me share with you some other statistics, more close to home.  The National Institute for Mental Health as recently as last September released this information.  Using a sample of over 10,000 teens ages 13-18, they found that over their lifetimes 20% of the children had “suffered from a mental disorder with symptoms severe enough to impair their daily lives.”  An earlier study with over 3000 younger children found that 13% of the children met the criteria for one or more mental disorder.  This figure, by the way is down from the Joint Commission on the Mental Health of Children, which in 1969 found that 13.6% of all children had “emotional disturbance.”  So that’s long before Pong, people, and the statistics if anything have gone down with the advent of better treatment.

Let me share with you one more statistic, from the Pew Research Center which found in 2009 that 99% of boys and 94% of girls play video games.  So yes, close to 100% of children in the U.S. play video games, and yes, somewhere between 13-20% of U.S. children have some mental health issue, but that’s because the statistic correlates to a pretty consistent percentage of the population over time predating video games entirely.  And if the first study from Singapore were comparable, we could make the argument that kids in Singapore play more video games and have less mental health issues than kids in the U.S.  So go Singapore!

If you think you game more than you’d like, feel free to change that, but don’t do it because someone in Singapore says you should.

But if I stopped my rant here, I think that would be doing a large percentage of the population a disservice, namely, those 26.2% of Americans who live with some form of mental illness.  Haven’t we stigmatized these folks enough?  The constant warcry of “video games are bad,” leans on the ableist stereotype that “mental illness is bad.”  It’s not.  Mental illness can be challenging, heartbreaking, costly and different from a societal norm, but it is not bad.  It is a prevalent health condition, like other prevalent health conditions like, per the CDC statistics, p. 292, Diabetes (10.1%,)High Cholesterol (15.6%,)  Hypertension (30.5%,) and Low Back Pain (25.6%.)  Whether it be providing adequate health coverage and parity, or taking away the moral overtones, it’s time we stopped treating mental illness like it is something different than other health concerns.

Gamers and people with mental illness do have something in common:  They are both marginalized and socially stigmatized by the larger population.  So whether you play Super Mario or live with PTSD; whether you play WoW or keep challenging your Depression; whether you have ADHD, Asperger’s or a PS3, game on!  There’s nothing bad about you all, any of you, no matter what the experts say.




  1. Thanks for immediately placing this study in perspective. Frankly, I’m surprised that the number was only 9% just because of the prevalence rates for mental health problems. What this suggests is that many kids who have mental health problems use gaming in a very healthy way.

    I find it fascinating that the media focuses on gaming and internet addiction, when the average American watches 4 hrs of TV a day. The brain scan studies of TV watching do not paint a pretty picture–people are not in an “active’ brain use mode. Whereas the brain scan studies of gaming indicate there is a lot of active creative problem solving going on. I’m not sure I have ever seen research identifying positive consequences of TV watching. Yet our media (much of it TV-based I might add) focuses on gaming as the bad guy. Hmmm…what’s up with that I wonder? Especially when I have heard that when people take up gaming what they tend to give up is TV watching (sorry no cite on that…I remember seeing it but can’t recall where…maybe someone else can find it. At the risk of sounding like Oliver Stone here I just want to point out the self-interest involved in media coverage.

    At any rate, if you are interested in the health consequences of TV, check out this site that I just found…looked interesting:

  2. Hi Mike,

    It is very sad and wrong how both gamers and people with mental illness are marginalized and socially stigmatized by the larger population.

    I think it’s great that you wrote this post to counter some of the prevailing misconceptions. The more people understand about gamers and those who have a mental illness, the more likely they are to see them for who they are, as opposed to who they think they are.

    Take care,

  3. Thanks. This is terrific. I’ll link over to you, best of luck.

  4. Ah, Mike, this may be my favorite post of yours!! Thanks for helping us keep it all in perspective…

    -from a mom of a 7 year old who loves Mario and also spent 2 hours today doing voluntary school work and reading…. 🙂

    • Glad you liked it Susan. And glad Mario is alive and well at your house. A study came out this past week that seems to indicate that girls who played video games with there fathers reported better relationships with them, so there may be something here. All the same, I do like the image in your recent post of your making cookies. Boys cannot live on video games alone!


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