Playing video games to cope with anxiety may flag addiction

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Understanding why people play video games could help identify who is at risk for a gaming disorder, a new study shows.

Researchers surveyed college students about their frequency of video game play, coping strategies, anxiety, and symptoms of various mental illnesses including gaming disorder and discovered that using video games as a coping mechanism for anxiety predicted symptoms of gaming disorder. Further, higher levels of stress increased the risk.

“For most people, playing video games is a normal, healthy way to relieve stress, but some reach a point and can no longer control that behavior. Loss of control is, of course, a hallmark of addiction,” says Douglas Gentile, a professor of psychology at Iowa State University.

“If students in the study were more stressed and they played video games specifically as a way of coping, then their risk of dysfunctional symptoms increased.”

Not all bad

The World Health Organization classified gaming disorder as a mental health disorder earlier this year, but there is still a lot to learn about potential risk factors for addiction, Gentile says. He says the paper is one of the first to provide evidence that using video games to cope with anxiety is an important factor to consider when diagnosing or treating video game addiction.

Not all video game play is bad, Gentile says. Similar to having a drink after a difficult day at work or following a stressful situation, drinking—or video game play—is not a problem, until it is.

“The issue is when the gaming begins to disrupt normal and healthy functioning. This may mean they’re getting worse grades, they’re lying to people about time spent gaming, or they’re performing poorly at work,” he says.

In the new paper, which appears in Psychology of Popular Media Culture, the researchers reference a 2011 article from The Guardian, which featured the story of Ryan Van Cleave, an English professor who gamed to cope with work-related stress, relationship issues, and day-to-day setbacks.

Van Cleave’s experience illustrates video game addiction is more than prolonged play, the researchers write. While nearly 25 percent of adult men gamers play four or more hours per day, Gentile’s previous research found gaming disorder rates are between 2 and 8 percent of gamers.

Coping mechanism

Gaming disorder is commonly linked to excessive play and therefore people assume the solution is to simply limit the frequency of play. While frequency is associated, the new research suggests addiction may be more about video game play as a means of coping with stress or setbacks, says lead author Courtney Plante, a former postdoctoral researcher.

“It’s possible that people playing for recreational or social reasons may be less at risk for addiction than those playing to escape anxiety or stress, but additional research is needed,” she says.

“We do know that dysregulated coping is a risk factor for substance addictions in general and our research shows gaming disorder is similar to other addictions.”

The research supports previous studies that find gaming disorder may exist along with other mental disorders, such as depression, anxiety, social phobias, and ADHD. To effectively diagnose and treat, clinicians need to understand how one may be related to the other by asking gamers about their media habits.

For example, Gentile says many first-year students will seek counseling services in response to poor academic performance. If a therapist only asks about study habits, sleep, and note-taking, without asking about gaming habits, it may be difficult to treat the problem.

The researchers acknowledge the study is correlational, so they cannot say whether anxiety causes the use of video game play as a coping strategy, which in turn causes video game addiction. The researchers are working on a longitudinal study to determine whether youth who use games as a coping strategy are likely to develop symptoms of video game addiction.

Source: Iowa State University