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Boys who play video games regularly 'at lower risk of depression’

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Research suggests that young boys who play video games regularly are at a lower risk of developing depressive symptoms three years later.

The study conducted by researchers at University College London (UCL) also found that girls who spend more time on social media appear to develop more depressive symptoms. Taken together, the findings suggest that different types of screen time can positively or negatively influence young people’s mental health, and may also affect boys and girls differently.

“Screens allow us to engage in a wide range of activities,” said lead author PhD student Aaron Kandola from UCL Psychiatry. “Guidelines and recommendations about screen time should be based on our understanding of how these different activities might influence mental health and whether that influence is meaningful.”

Kandola added: “While we cannot confirm whether playing video games actually improves mental health, it didn’t appear harmful in our study and may have some benefits. Particularly during the pandemic, video games have been an important social platform for young people.”

As part of the study, the researchers used data from 11,341 11-year-olds about their use of social media, video games, and the internet. Three years later, when they had reached 14, they also answered questions about depressive symptoms such as low mood, loss of pleasure and poor concentration.

The results suggest that boys who engaged in video gaming most days had 24 per cent fewer depressive symptoms three years later, compared to those who played video games less than once a month. But researchers noted that this effect was only significant among boys with low physical activity levels, and not found among girls, which may indicate that less active boys could find more enjoyment and social interaction from video games. 

Meanwhile, the study found that girls aged 11 who used social media regularly had 13 per cent more depressive symptoms three years later than those who used social media less than once a month.

“We need to reduce how much time children, and adults, spend sitting down, for their physical and mental health, but that doesn’t mean that screen use is inherently harmful,” Kandola explained.

The researchers also factored in socioeconomic status, physical activity levels, reports of bullying, and prior emotional symptoms into the findings. But the researchers said there could be other reasons for the link for which they have no data for yet, such as differences in social contact or parenting styles.

Without knowing the exact number of hours young people spent in front of screens per day, the scientists are also unable to determine whether multiple hours could impact on depression risks.

“The relationship between screen time and mental health is complex and we still need more research to help understand it. Any initiatives to reduce young people’s screen time should be targeted and nuanced,” said senior author Dr Mats Hallgren of the Karolinska Institutet in Sweden. 

He added: “Our research points to possible benefits of screen time. However, we should still encourage young people to be physically active and to break up extended periods of sitting with light physical activity.”

Last November, a study by Oxford University found that video games were shown to improve wellbeing for players.

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