Video games are present in many households and have become a daily activity for a large number of people. As video games have become more popular and ubiquitous in the lives of many children and adolescents as well, it has become important to understand what impact video games might have on the players, both short and long term.
What Happens to the Body While Playing Video Games?
Playing video games affects multiple areas of the body. Heart rate and blood pressure increase. The nervous system shifts into high gear and stays there. With some games, it responds as if the body is truly in danger and ready to do battle, trying to strategize, get weapons, defend turf, and survive. To keep the body in survival mode, blood flow decreases in the stomach, kidneys, liver, and bladder, instead heading towards the limbs and heart.
The brain is also impacted by playing video games, becoming overstimulated. The visual-motor area of the brain turns on and other parts shut off because the body thinks they are non-essential. When eyes lock on the screen, it sends messages to the brain that it is bright out and time to be awake, so the body has a hard time calming down and going to sleep when it is time. While playing, a chemical called dopamine is released in the brain. Dopamine makes the player feel good and stay interested and focused on playing. However, the brain then starts producing less of this positive-feeling chemical at times when the player is not playing video games.
What Happens to the Body After the Game Ends?
Once away from the game, the brain works to re-regulate. Adrenaline decreases, though the stress hormone stays high making it hard to relax and think clearly. This can lead to seeming confused, not being able think straight, feeling exhausted, and distrusting others because the brain still sees them as a challenge or a threat. This can impact behavior, such as being aggressive, rageful, reactive, and ready to fight. Decreases in dopamine (the positive-feeling chemical) after playing also affect behaviors and aggression. Energy becomes disorganized and it is easy for the body to get revved up again. Even when the body starts to settle down, emotions can stay high and be difficult to regulate, which can impact sleep and lead to worries about what others may think and feel about you.
What are the Long Term Impacts of Playing?
Over time of playing video games, energy gets built up but is not discharged due to sitting in front of a screen instead of engaging in physical activity such as exercising or running outside. Health issues can also develop from spending so much time sitting. Excessive game play may cause social disconnects from others, which may lead to depression and anxiety. In addition, when the body is in a long-term state of arousal of the nervous system’s fight or flight response it leads to overall feelings of anxiousness. The brain and the body have trouble getting back to a calm state, and thus experience chronic stress and physical exhaustion. Arousal leads to blood flow away from the “thinking” part of the brain, the frontal lobe, towards the “survival” part of the brain. As the frontal lobe “short circuits,” it is more difficult to access creativity, pay attention, follow directions, complete tasks, manage emotions, suppress impulses, and tolerate frustration. Given the amount of multitasking required for games, over time it may also be more difficult to focus in less stimulating environments such as classrooms or offices.
Excessive video game play can also become addictive, causing cravings to play and symptoms of withdrawal when not playing. As the reward/impulse part of the brain develops faster than the self-control part of the brain, long-term play can increase risk for impulsive or risky behavior. These changes in the brain can lead to increased vulnerability to alcohol and drug addiction in later life.
What are the Benefits of Playing Video Games?
When video game play has been limited to 30 minutes per day, a number of benefits have been found. Playing can improve hand-eye coordination and visual spatial skills, the ability to recognize relationships among objects. It can build situational awareness including strategy and anticipation and pattern recognition. Improvements have also been observed in short-term memory, attention, selective attention, and task switching-sustained attention. Video game play also enhances the ability to make quick decisions and improves frustration tolerance. With team games, players can learn to work together with others.
What are the Signs that Gaming is a Problem?
While gaming can be a fun daily activity, it is also important to look out for signs that play is becoming a problem. These include spending excessive amounts of time playing and losing track of time, as well as losing interest in previously important activities or hobbies and neglecting schoolwork or professional responsibilities. Preferring to spend time playing rather than with family and friends and becoming socially isolated, moody, or irritable or establishing a new life with only gaming friends are also worth noting. Attempts to hide playing activities and being defensive when confronted about playing can signal possible addiction to video games.
As a Parent, What Can I Do?
In order to model a healthy relationship with video games, parents can play video games with their children. This also allows for greater connection with and knowledge of children and opportunity to observe how playing video games impacts the children. It is essential to teach about internet safety and not sharing personal information with people they meet while gaming online. Keeping all gaming activities in a central location allows for monitoring safety and activities, including setting up and enforcing daily or weekly time limits for game play. Lastly, video game choice is also important including making sure games are age-appropriate, limiting violent games which have been shown to increase aggression, and choosing games that include and build skills such as visual spatial awareness, decision making, and teamwork.