Think back to your middle- and high-school years. You’re in the cafeteria, or on the playground, or you’re waiting outside the classroom chatting with your your friends. Suddenly, the conversation takes a turn—and you’re floundering with your lack of knowledge on said subject. Your friends are laughing and making in-jokes, and you have absolutely no idea how to contribute to the conversation. You make an attempt to fake it, and all you receive is a bit of nervous laughter and, at worst, somebody scoffs. They turn away to continue the conversation without you, and you know you’ve just lost about a bajillion status points in this exchange. The isolation is palpable.
Sound familiar? These are the feelings that a lot of kids experience when they’re missing out on a key activity, whether it’s sports, a popular TV show, or even video games.
If you’re a teenager living in this era, video games are ubiquitous. Studies say that about 97% of teen boys play games, and 94% of teen girls. The question is, where does that leave the 3% of boys and 6% of girls who don’t play games?
A new Oxford University study has found that levels of social adjustment differ when examining time spent playing video games per day. Young people who spent some time (an hour or under) gaming a day were the most satisfied with their lives and also showed the highest levels of positive social interactions. Those who spent no time gaming had more negative responses—likely because, as psychologist Dr. Andrew Przybylski posits, “being engaged in video games may give children a common language…and for someone who is not part of this conversation, this might end up cutting the young person off.”
It’s also possible that performing immoral actions in virtual environments can actually increase prosocial behavior, as evidenced in this study, which may provide another reason for Dr. Przybylski’s findings. However, whether it’s the shared interest angle or the prosociality angle, it’s clear that playing games for a small amount of time per day is largely positive.
It’s tempting to say something here about herd mentality and the lemming effect. (I’m recalling my mom asking me if everyone jumped off a cliff, would I do it too? Of course not, but Moooom, I reaaaally want purple lipstick!) And there’s something to that—we certainly should teach kids to think for themselves and engage in activities mindfully.
But the other side of that equation is that sometimes there’s a great reason that “everybody else gets to do it.” With video games, the reason is that gaming can be fun, engaging, social, creative, relaxing, invigorating, educational, therapeutic…I could go on. (The key word here is “can,” of course. It’s important to note that kids who played more than three hours a day also gave negative responses for social adjustment. Mindful consumption of any media is essential.)
Kids who never get to engage with video games aren’t just missing out on the benefits within the games themselves, though; this study shows that they’re also missing out on the social benefits that come with a shared activity. I remember those school days hanging out with my friends, talking about the latest games we’ve been playing. When I get together with my family, my brother, sister and I can spend hours discussing the moral intricacies of the latest game releases. I’ve shared countless long car rides with my best friend giggling about silly things that happened in our favorite MMORPGs (massively multiplayer online roleplaying games).
The takeaway? Never assume that gaming is antisocial: not every game can be played with others, but sharing a love of video games is one way kids connect with each other.