FRIDAY, May 6 (HealthDay News) -- Contrary to what some might
think, spending hours online playing video games and interacting
with others through avatars may contribute to emotional health, if
virtual gaming partners or opponents include real-world family
members, findings from a new data analysis suggest.
Various research has touted the negative effects of spending too
much solitary time playing video games, so "people think [video]
games are bad for you psychologically," explained study author
Cuihua Shen. "We challenge that assumption," she said.
"If I am playing with existing family and friends, I am extending my social life in cyberspace, and that is actually good for me psychologically," said Shen, an assistant professor of emerging media and communication at the University of Texas at Dallas.
However, this assertion comes with some caveats. Shen's study
found that the quality of family communication took a nosedive when
kids and young adults -- primarily those in their 30s -- failed to
include family and friends in the many hours they spent playing
video and virtual reality games.
In addition, even virtual gamers who played regularly with their
families and thus expanded their time together reported the quality
of that communication was "slightly lower" than usual.
Shen and co-author Dmitri Williams, of the University of
Southern California, analyzed surveys of over 5,000 participants in
Sony Online Entertainment's massively multiplayer online (MMO)
game, EverQuest II (EQ2). They collected self-reported information
about players' psychosocial well being -- including their level of
loneliness, family communication time and quality -- and their
Internet use, and also looked at Sony's proprietary game server
information about players' online behavior.
The investigators found that gamers who played EQ2 with family
members experienced various psychosocial benefits, including more
family communication time, even though the quality of that
communication was not ideal, Shen and Williams reported in a recent
issue of the journal
Communication Research. Interactions during online games may not be "as nurturing or meaningful as those from more conventional media," the researchers explained.
Gamers who did not play with family experienced the opposite
effects, however, since their family communication time was
essentially replaced by their online gaming habits. What's more,
the quality of their family communication suffered
Although the study participants included youth, gamers were
overwhelmingly young adult males, aged 31 years on average, who
were well-educated and had incomes greater than in the general U.S.
population. The gamers spent nearly 30 hours online each week,
outside of work, and most of that time was spent playing EQ2.
In surveys with a control group, EQ2 players who spent a large
portion of their online time meeting new people experienced a
better sense of community online, but increased loneliness and less
family time. In fact, the game was associated with poorer family
communication in general, although the effect was weaker for those
playing with family members, the researchers noted.
"Playing MMOs can be good for your psychosocial health but it really depends on the purpose, context and type of players," Shen said. "There really are a lot of nuances."
So rather than have parents continue their "futile efforts" to
stop kids and adult children from spending so much time playing
online, Shen suggested they join them. "Parents could try to get
into games as well," she said, describing the online avatar world
as a "place to socialize outside normal settings." Playing together
may even spark later game-related discussion topics and help
"improve family communication" in the long run, she suggested.
Shen does not advocate that online gaming take the place of more
traditional outside family activities, such as picnics or sports.
"I'm not suggesting that we should stop playing outside," she said,
but parents can "take the virtual world as an opportunity to bond
with their kids."
Players who went online mostly for information-gathering
purposes, however, experienced less loneliness, better and longer
family communication time and a greater sense of neighborhood and
workplace/school community, the researchers reported.
The findings of beneficial psychosocial effects associated with
online playing with family members are not surprising to Michael
Gilbert, a senior fellow at the Annenberg Center for the Digital
Future at the University of Southern California.
Drawing on his research in Internet use that points to the
explosion of online social media as a potential cause or
contributor to the breakdown in face-to-face family time that has
occurred since the first half of the decade, he said, "to my mind,
it's kind of simplistic."
"If we're using social media as a family, I think that, indeed, yes, this activity can definitely draw a family together," he said. "It's never the technology [to blame for decreased family face-to-face time], it's how we use it."
There's information on kids and the Internet at the