- Experts say that while playing video games alone can increase loneliness in children, interactive video gaming with online friends can help ease loneliness.
- They say this finding is especially important during the COVID-19 pandemic when children are confined to home for longer periods of time.
- Experts advise parents to talk to children about what games they are playing.
- They also advise parents to discuss with children how to interact online with people they don’t know.
The “lonely gamer” stereotype is being challenged by a new study that has concluded that children who play video games interactively with friends are actually combating loneliness.
The research comes from Geert Verheijen, MSc, a behavioral psychologist and video gamer in the Netherlands.
Over a 3-year period, Verheijen studied the gaming behavior of 705 children in 7th to 10th grades. Questionnaires and in-person observational studies were used to collect data from a mix of male and female students.
Verheijen concluded that while solo play for long periods does increase feelings of loneliness, the opposite is true when playing interactive games online with friends.
The research comes as more households may be dealing with issues surrounding screen time and video games during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Experts told Healthline the social aspect of interactive gaming can encourage healthy development.
“Game play is social, although it doesn’t always have the reputation of being so,” said Susan E. Rivers, PhD, social psychologist and expert in social and emotional learning. She is also the current executive director and chief scientist for the nonprofit iThrive Games Foundation.
“Social play requires us to practice and refine some social and emotional skills that we might not think about as much when we play alone,” Rivers told Healthline.
“When we play with real people, we have to be thoughtful about how we’re competing or collaborating, and we have to deal with the fallout if we’re less than gracious,” she said.
Rivers says interactive gaming can provide “the opportunity to share our triumph and joy with others, amplifying those positive experiences.”
“Working together toward a shared in-game goal is a powerful way to build bonds with and get to know others, and that social connection is paramount for mental health,” she said.
Dr. Shana Feibel, DO, a staff psychiatrist at the Lindner Center of HOPE in Mason, Ohio, who is affiliated with the University of Cincinnati Medical Center, told Healthline the social isolation due to the pandemic is pervasive in younger people who are used to spending time with others.
“I work in an inpatient psychiatric unit and have at least one to two new young patients every day who have this very issue,” said Feibel. “They have become depressed and even suicidal.”
“Because of this, we need to become more open to a variety of social contacts which does include interactive gaming,” she explained. “Even though the people are not in the room together, a social connection inevitably forms which helps to combat social isolation.”
There are obvious differences between in-person and online gameplay, but Rivers said that virtual play is no less valuable than in-person play.
“Virtual play connects and nourishes us in many similar ways and has been a lifeline for many teens during physical distancing,” she said.
Rivers said gaming offers the following benefits:
- reduces stress
- reduces feelings of isolation
- reduces feelings of loneliness
- increases feelings of competence
- increases engagement and empathy
“While in-person was preferable in the past, in today’s society, safety comes first,” she said. “Social interaction is still vital and, therefore, we need to change our ways of thinking about spending time with others.”
Online game playing is one such avenue to explore, according to experts.
“An online play space offers new ways for friend groups to collaborate, be creative, resolve conflicts, regulate their emotions, and practice making amends when things go awry,” said Rivers.
“Friend groups who play together online also have the benefit of a social network of family members who likely know one another and can stay connected about what’s happening both on and offline,” she added.
However, you don’t need to play with your existing friend group to reap rewards.
“All that said, we should never discount the value of online-only friends,” said Rivers. “Friends chosen based on a common interest and the common structure of shared in-game goals can and often do last a lifetime.”
Interactive online gaming opens a new realm of social opportunity, but with that comes a certain level of risk.
There can also be a big difference in online games that range from Fortnite to Animal Crossing.
How can you help your children and teens stay safe while playing online?
Experts say stay in communication with your youngsters.
“The most important thing you can do is stay involved in and aware of what your kids are playing online, and with whom, but not only with the intent of setting boundaries,” said Rivers. “Take an active interest, get curious, ask your kids what games they love, and why they love them, and really listen.”
“Remember that your kids are experts in this space, so you can open up an opportunity for them to shine by asking them to share the backstory of the characters or to teach you how to play,” she added.
Feibel said this is particularly true during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“With more children and teens staying home and reaching out to others for a gaming partner, there are plenty of others who are their age,” she said. “However, as with any online socializing, it is always important to be wary of strangers who may be out to harm your children.”
Experts emphasize that it’s important for parents to talk to their children about the people they meet online and staying safe, especially during the pandemic.