Prescribe Video Games for Depression and Anxiety

Prescribe Video Games for Depression and Anxiety

Images: Flickr user Torley

Need to relax? Feeling blue? Play a video game.

No, really. Did you know that playing video games can actually reduce the symptoms of anxiety and depression? Some excellent recent research has found that playing casual games like Bejeweled 2 and Peggle can change the autonomic and central nervous systems in a way that is consistent with decreased stress and improved mood.

Video game play can be fun, relaxing, and enjoyable. Of course, there is always the concern that children who are depressed can rely upon video game play to isolate themselves from others and avoid engaging in more adaptive activities. But games can also be used to improve social skills and relationships. If your kids are laughing and generally having a good time, that’s a good sign that video games are the right prescription.

Children who display signs of social anxiety or who have moderate difficulty with social skills can often benefit from supervised video game play with their peers. Playing video games with a friends calls for somewhat less conversation but still requires cooperation and collaboration. Becoming part of a larger group that plays online games can also facilitate online communication that, when paired with opportunities for face-to-face interactions, can be a useful intermediary step to becoming more social. For children with social anxiety, online communications can be an opportunity to initiate engagement that they might be reluctant to by more direct means. LearningWorks for Kids suggests video games that are good for social awareness, like the massively multiplayer online role playing game (MMORPG) Star Wars: The Old Republic, the locally cooperative New Super Mario Bros. U, and even the single-player IF….

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In addition to video games, a number of other digital technologies are particularly well-suited for helping socially-anxious children develop relationships. While we urge parents to make sure that relationships are not solely technology-based, for many children technologies can be a first step toward at least a few solid relationships with their peers. While parents should be involved on some level to guard against inappropriate online relationships and cyberbullying, the use of text messages, Facebook, and other social networking tools to interact with others can be extremely effective for facilitating future face-to-face relationships and the development of self-confidence in anxious children. Consider social media tools like Tumblr and Instagram.

Of course, it’s well-known that physical activity improves mood. And vigorous video game-based exercise is just as good as any other form of exercise for reducing stress and releasing endorphins. Games that utilize the PlayStation Move, Microsoft Kinect, and Nintendo Wii peripherals provide all kinds of opportunities for stress management and improved mood. They also have the added benefits of being fun, activities a child can do with the family, and more mentally stimulating than repetitive exercise such as running, swimming, or using exercise equipment. Games like Kinect Sports Rivals and Fight Night Round Four can help your child get rid of some tension, work up a sweat, and work up a smile.

To read more about how video games and apps can help kids with depression and anxiety, see our posts featuring strategies and tips for parents, the top 5 games for kids struggling with depression, and apps to help kids cope with depression. To get a grasp on striking a healthy balance between technology and other forms of play and social interaction, see the LearningWorks for Kids Play Diet. To find guides for other games and technologies that emphasize social interaction and awareness and even physical activity, see our playbooks and app reviews.

Video games shouldn’t be children’s only outlets, but they can certainly be a step in the right direction.

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In my work as a child psychologist, one of the things I see worrying parents the most is the “addictive” nature of social media and video game play. While I view most technology usage to be cognitively challenging and useful for kids, many parents worry about their kids only wanting to do things that involve a screen. And when it comes to kids with ADHD, Autism, and Learning Disabilities, stopping video game play can cause intense distress and arguments, to the point where many parents no longer want them to play games, no matter what the potential benefit may be.

One thought on “Prescribe Video Games for Depression and Anxiety

  1. I think it’s great to see other suggestions to improve depression in children aside from medication. This society relies too heavily on medication as the do-all cure for everything. Sometimes all you need is a little mind stimulation!

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