Few activities stir the imagination or popular concern more than video gaming. Nearly all young people in the UK now regularly play games – four in five of those we surveyed play daily – and the possibility they may impact on health, aggression, or human development is controversial. Indeed, the earliest policies on youth gaming have shaped the precautionary principle – an approach to mitigating possible societal harms by putting proactive protections in place where there is a plausible risk. Though scientific debates, concerning the effects of gaming, are quite fractious a growing body of evidence (built in-part on large-scale datasets) suggests that the links between gaming and youth outcomes might be smaller and more nuanced than many might fear.
An hour gaming a day can be beneficial
Using data from the ESRC-funded Understanding Society survey to investigate the unknown links between gaming and social and emotional functioning, we found (in a study published by Pediatrics) that those who played games for around an hour a day actually had higher psychosocial functioning levels – compared to those who did not play, or those who played excessively. In other words, young people who played in moderate amounts showed higher levels of life satisfaction, reported fewer problems with their peers and fewer emotional problems in their everyday lives.
We were able to replicate this pattern using more rigorous methods in a second study, however, here we found that more than ‘moderate’ time spent at a screen can be linked with a positive effect on well-being. Excessive play, more than 1h 40min on week days and 3hr 35min on weekend days had a ‘small’ effect at 1% or less is equivalent to one third of the positive effect on well-being of a good night’s sleep or regularly eating breakfast.
These findings are important and interesting because they put the possible effects of video gaming into perspective with the daily tradeoffs that parents and policymakers face. Given limited time: should a caregiver fight for a strict gaming limit or an earlier bedtime? So too for policymakers: if indeed time spent gaming is not uniformly bad, and possibly good, what else should industry and public guidance be focusing on? Importantly, because these datasets are made freely available on the ESRC’s UK Data Service site, the data is open to those in academia, government, and the charity sector. They can see the data for themselves and create policies and programmes based on our research and the data to ensure our framing is in line with their needs.
New research methods
A second paper, published with Netta Weinstein of Cardiff University in Psychological Science, used data from a sample of more than 120,000 English adolescents also available through the UK Data Service. What was special about this paper was that we were able to conceptually replicate and extend our earlier study by pre-registering our hypotheses before the data were publicly released and re-test the research question using a much larger sample. This allowed us to conduct true hypothesis testing.
Our approach was a dramatic break from the existing literatures where Hypothesizing After the Results are Known (or HARK-ing) is a common practice. HARK-ing, a phenomenon wherein researchers adjust their statistical models with knowledge of the effects this will have on the data and the inferences that can be drawn is a not a pitfall unique to gaming research, but is one that researchers and policymakers should be mindful of.
Using ESRC data sets to make a big difference to society
The easy availability of these ESRC datasets has allowed my colleagues and I to leverage our domain expertise without having to assemble our own large teams of demographers or interviewers.
Because ESRC-funded datasets are open and freely available on the UK Data Service increases scientific transparency for the area, we can iterate our research plans with existing data, and are freed up to conduct our own large-scale studies on gaming addiction. We were able to move past raw hours of play and take a deeper look at other concepts like addiction that might explain why some people have a hard time fitting gaming into their lives. This work has provided tentative estimates of the prevalence of gaming addiction in the UK, likely to be less than 1% of the population (0.47%, and identified new health and behavioural factors to study in our future gaming addiction research.
Our goal in the future is to further empirically zero in on a phenomenon with basic science and policy relevance. The precautionary principle still holds sway with respect to young people and gaming but transparent scientific practices and large-scale data will help us pivot from reflexive caution to evidence-based policies. If the past is any indicator, large-scale data and support from the ESRC will be a key part of these plans.
Note: This post was originally published on the ESRC blog on 3 March 2017. It might have been updated since then in its original location. The post gives the views of the author(s), and not necessarily the position of the Oxford Internet Institute.