The findings of a new study published in the Journal of Adolescent Health have shown that replacing sedentary video games with active video games is linked to more positive mental health measures. On the contrary, replacing active outdoor play with active video games is linked to more negative mental health measures.
Physical inactivity in youth and children is a significant public health problem. Previous research shows that 80% of youth between 13 and 15 years of age across 105 countries do not participate in the recommended minimum of 60 minutes of moderate-to-vigorous activity per day. This data is problematic given that physical activity has a positive influence on the mental and physical health of young people.
A strategy that has been promoted to increase physical activity levels in youth and children is active video games, such as Dance Dance Revolution and Wii Sports. The main focus of research on active video games within the general population has been on the potential for these games to reduce body weight and enhance energy expenditure. The findings of previous studies regarding whether active video games are beneficial or harmful in terms of body weight and energy expenditure have been inconsistent and inconclusive. Further, gaming and physical activity aspects of active video games may influence other health outcomes, especially mental health; gaming has been shown to negatively impact mental health, whereas physical activity has shown to have a positive impact on mental health. However, research on the association between playing active video games and mental health has been scarce.
Active video games affect health depending on the impact of the active video games and the amount of time they would replace doing other activities that are dependent on time. Since playing active videos games is an activity that children and young people engage in during their free time, they are expected to take the place of alternative free-time activities. Sedentary video games and active outdoor play are two other activities, which represent the gaming and physical activity features of active video games.
A team of researchers conducted a study to investigate the relationship between active video games and mental health measures in youth and children. Their study included a sample of 20,122 youth in grades 6 to 10 living in Canada. The average hours/days youth spent playing active outdoor play, sedentary video games, and active video games were examined. The researchers looked at the following outcomes: prosocial behaviour (a positive and externalizing mental health measure, defined as any action intended to help others), emotional problems (a negative and internalizing mental health measure), and life satisfaction (a positive and internalizing mental health measure). They aimed to understand the degree to which replacing time spent engaging in sedentary video games and active outdoor play with an equal amount of time in active video games had on the mental health measures (prosocial behaviour, emotional problems, and life satisfaction) among the youth.
The findings, published in the Journal of Adolescent Health, showed that taking over the place of sedentary video games with an equal amount of time playing active video games was linked to more positive estimates for all mental health measures. In fact, when 1 hour per day of active video games replaced 1 hour per day of sedentary video games, this was associated with a 13% increased odds of high prosocial behaviour, a 4% increased odds of high life satisfaction, and a 6% decreased odds of high emotional problems. However, taking over the place of active outdoor play with an equal amount of time playing active video games was linked to more negative estimates for all mental health measures. When 1 hour per day of active video games replaced 1 hour per day of active outdoor play, this resulted in a 6% reduced odds of high prosocial behaviour, a 3% reduced odds of high life satisfaction, and a 7% increased odds of high emotional problems. Furthermore, when time replacement was not taken into consideration, active video games were related to prosocial behaviours, but not life satisfaction or emotional problems.
Previous studies have suggested that the energy expenditure rate in young people is greater when they play active video games than when they play sedentary video games for the same amount of time. Active video games were also found to be more beneficial compared to sedentary video games in terms of mental health in the present study. The findings indicate that active video games positively affect mental health through the process of increasing energy expenditure.
Prior studies have also shown that energy expenditure rates in young people are comparable when they play outdoors and when they play active video games, suggesting that active outdoor play and active video games has similar advantages. On the contrary, active outdoor play was more strongly linked to positive mental health measures compared to active video games in the present study. The researchers propose that active outdoor play positively affects mental health through a mechanism that reaches beyond increasing energy expenditure. One possible mechanism is exposure to the outdoors, which can lead to greater social contact, increased prosocial behaviours and/or help reduce fatigue and stress.
The overall findings indicate that when active video games take the place of sedentary video games, the mental health of youth improves. However, when active video games take the place of active outdoor play, this has an adverse effect on their mental health. The researchers state that further intervention and longitudinal studies are needed to confirm the results and determine the casual nature of the results of the present study.
Written By: Nigar Celep, BASc