Depression is one of the most common psychiatric difficulties experienced by children.  While most children and adults sometimes feel sad and blue,  a diagnosed depression tends to be more severe, long lasting, and interferes with normal activity. There are a variety of “Mood Disorders” including Major Depression, Dysthymia (mild depression), and Bipolar Disorder.

Signs of depression difficulties may include:

  • Depressed, sad mood for extended periods of time
  • Loss of interest in activities
  • Difficulties with sleeping, eating, or energy levels
  • Difficulties with concentration and decision-making
  • Feelings of hopelessness and worthlessness

Depression and Alternative Learners

Many children who do not have a diagnosed Anxiety or Major Depression Disorder will still experience mild difficulties with stress, worry, sadness, low self-esteem, and a lack of energy. These more modest difficulties may not require the same level of intervention that a child with a diagnosable depressive or anxiety disorder might, but they may be helped by many of the technological and academic strategies presented here.

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How do games, apps, and other digital media help kids with Depression?

Many children who do not have a diagnosed Major Depression or Mood Disorder will still experience mild difficulties with stress, sadness, low self-esteem, and a lack of energy.  These more modest difficulties may not require the same level of intervention that a child with a diagnosable depressive disorder does, but may be helped by many of the technological and academic strategies presented here.

Kids with Depression: Games, Apps, and Other Digital Media
May appear to be sad and have difficulty enjoying themselves or having fun. Good video games and other digital media are fun and encourage playful interactions with the game and with those who are nearby.
Can become easily withdrawn and socially isolated from friends and family. Many video games are social by nature.  Kids who are involved with multi-player games or play with siblings or family are emotionally engaged.
May be lethargic and lack the energy to initiate or complete tasks. Active and movement-based video games provide reinforcement, encouragement, and exertion of energy.  They are particularly good for reducing stress and tension as a result of the physical exercise from the games.
May experience a sense of low self-esteem and identify themselves as failures. Video games are a great opportunity for success as good games present a challenge as well as the capacity for mastery.  As a result, players are often able to regularly view their progress and successes.

What Thinking Skills are impaired in children with Depression?

  • Self-Control:  Children with these difficulties have problems regulating their emotions, often displaying more signs of sadness and anger than of positive emotions.
  • Flexibility Children may get stuck in negative thinking, tending to view “the glass as half empty rather than half full”.
  • Self-Awareness: These children tend to judge themselves too harshly, so that they are unable to provide an accurate estimate of their own abilities. They might minimize their importance to others as well.
  • Focus: Depression can create many difficulties in children’s capacity to maintain their mental energy, attention, focus, and effort, particularly for tasks that present even modest challenges.

How do games and apps improve Academic Skills for children with Depression?

Many children with depression are disproportionately concerned about how others rate their performance. They benefit from software and games that build mastery and success. As a result, these children are drawn to software and websites that facilitate practicing academic skills on their own.  This allows them to not feel judged by others when they fail because only they and the computer program recognize that they made a mistake.

Children with depression, and other psychiatric disorders tend to perform more poorly in school due in part to problems with sustaining their attention and effort and a loss of motivation for academics.  Digital media, software, and video games that engage the child in the process of learning may help a child complete more schoolwork and take on challenges they might not otherwise.

Here are some strategies where video games and other digital media can support and enhance the academic success of children with depression:

  • Encourage activity and movement games. Exercise has been proven to reduce symptoms of depression, which will in turn help a child to put forth more effort in their schoolwork.  Exercise also has been demonstrated to lead to increased capacities for focusing and learning, particularly with children with modest learning and attentional difficulties.
  • Employ positive feedback. Using video games and websites that provide rewards, badges, and other forms of positive feedback for completing tasks can help boost self-esteem and positivity. Whether it’s an XBox 360 achievement or a Google News Badge, these digital rewards can be very powerful reinforcers for children who are feeling a sense of depression.
  • Build mastery and success in educational games and apps. Most of the best video games and apps are able to match the level of challenge to the child’s current abilities, so that they can experience a sense of success as they learn new material. Because the negative feedback is private, even making mistakes can be seen as an opportunity for learning, rather than one of personal failure

What are the potential problems with using  games and apps for children with Depression?

While video games and other digital media can be helpful in improving mood, increasing activity, and even releasing physical tension, there are a number of concerns about the use of these tools for children with depression.

As a result, we encourage parents to be very judicious about and monitor the use of digital media for children who have depression. Consult the table below to see what you should watch out for, and how you can go about avoiding these problems.

Cautions Solutions
Children who are depressed run the risk of become socially isolated as a result of spending too much time involved in solitary digital play, staring at a screen for hours on end, and not truly interacting with others. Require that your child predominantly play multi-player games, and games that facilitate family interactions. Many video games are social by nature. Kids who play these social games with friends and family are more emotionally engaged than kids who only play games alone.
Video games and other digital media can become their major source of entertainment and positive feelings, and as a result, a child may refuse to participate in other activities, do their homework, or engage with family members. Because it may serve as a source of comfort and positive moods, it is important not to simply take gaming away from a child who is displaying these behaviors. Instead, ensure that your child is also involved in a variety of other activities, and is only allowed to play games after engaging in these other activities first.
Kids with depressive disorders may chose to engage with digital play instead of the physical activities that are part of a healthy treatment process for anxiety and depression. In order to ensure that your child’s digital media use is positive in nature, you could engage in movement-based video games that an entire family can play. Encourage her to play active games like Wii Tennis or Kinect Adventures.

What are the non-digital treatments for children with Depression?

Treating anxiety and depression requires far more than the digital strategies we can teach you.  A number of traditional strategies work very well in conjunction with the methods described at LearningWorks for Kids. Common interventions for children with anxiety and depression difficulties include behavioral, supportive, cognitive, medical, and life-skill approaches.

  • Cognitive-behavioral therapies have been proven to reduce symptoms depression.
  • Medications, prescribed by a child’s pediatrician or psychiatrist, may be appropriate.
  • Regular involvement in vigorous exercise has been proven to reduce symptoms depression.
  • Regular involvement in meditation, yoga, mindfulness training, or relaxation techniques can be helpful.
  • Behavioral approaches may provide methods for improving self-esteem and opportunities for positive engagement with others.

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