Gaming social networks could have positive impact on mental health

Video games are a popular pastime for many Americans, providing entertainment and relaxation, and even a social outlet for some. However, excessive gaming can lead to isolation, addiction, mood changes and other negative effects, including contributing to anxiety and depression.

A new study, published in the journal Sociological Focus, examines the social structure of an online gaming site to see how social support, sense of community, and depressive symptoms affect social connections over time. The study’s researchers, Tyler Prochnow, PhD, and Meg Patterson, PhD, from the Department of Health Behavior at the Texas A&M University School of Public Health, along with colleagues from the University of North Carolina and Baylor University, used social network analysis to analyze a social network consisting of members of an online football simulation gaming site at two points in time.

The researchers surveyed 37 members at the beginning of the game’s season and 40 at the end, with 30 members represented in both samples. They collected data on age, sex, and other demographic factors, as well as the number of hours members spent on the gaming site and playing other video games. Members also answered survey questions on depressive symptoms and perceived ability to talk to someone about problems. They were also asked to list people in real life and on the gaming site that they talked to about important life matters.

The study found that social support, sense of community, and depressive symptoms played a role in changes to the game’s social structure over time. Members who reported more social support online, and those who reported less real-life support, were more likely to reach out to other members. They also found that communication ties were more likely to form when communications were reciprocated or transitive (involving three people groups or clusters). In addition, players who spent more time on the site were more likely to have communication ties.

The researchers also found that members who reported feeling a greater sense of community and placing value in being part of the site were more likely to form communication ties over time. However, members with less real-life support were more likely to form communication ties, while those reporting greater depressive symptoms were less likely to send communication ties over time.

This study’s findings reinforce existing research on connections between mental health, social support, and online gaming and point to the need for more research into the complicated relationships in these areas. More research into these areas and their interactions could help inform interventions to improve social connection and mental health for socially isolated communities and populations living in socially isolating times, such as the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Tyler Prochnow said, “Many people feel a sense of community, support, and comfort through online gaming, and I think we need to do a better job measuring these connections and fostering them to improve mental health in today’s digital age.”

Overall, while excessive video game playing can have negative effects on mood and behavior, this study suggests that online gaming can also provide a sense of community and social support.

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