Worried Gaming Is Ruining Teen Social Life? Don't.

Online gaming fosters teens' social skills.

Posted Sep 13, 2018

Guest post by Kayley Porterfield

Playing internet-based video games is one of the most popular activities for people of all ages.  Although we often associate gaming with adolescents, it has spread among all ages as gamers get older and technology and software advances. A booming game industry helps as well.

In both the popular media and scientific literature, much of our conversation has focused on the negative effects of video games on kids. For example:

  • There is evidence of bidirectional effects between violence and violent video games (violent kids prefer violent games and violent games promote violence among youth pre-disposed that way), although the effects are smaller than those for television (Anderson & Bushman, 2001; Goldbeck & Pew, 2017).
  • Excessive video game play can cause sleep deprivation, which directly negatively impacts next-day attention span and cognitive function (Wolfe et al., 2014).

Can video games promote social skills?

The potential link between gaming habits and poor academic performance is enough to make some parents wary of how their children spend their leisure time. Parents and the media also tend to bemoan adolescents spending a large amount of time playing games as a ‘solo’ behavior that will interfere with normal social development. 

However, research suggests that gaming can promote social life.  Particularly in massively multiplayer online games (MMOs), social interaction with other players and community building is a key part of the game experience. What do these communities and friendships mean to the players? What are the potential benefits of being involved in online gaming from a social and emotional standpoint?

Let’s look at some of the research.

Gaming can be a powerful tool for building social networks. One of the most common fears expressed about gaming is its potential to lead to poor social embeddedness and isolation. However, Domahidi, Festl, and Quandt were critical of this assumption. In a 2014 study looking at social online gamers, non-social online gamers, and non-gamers, they found that, regardless of the frequency of gaming, the groups were all well connected with friends. In fact, young male social online gamers were found to be generally more socially embedded. Those who played online more frequently had a higher chance of making friends online, but whether they integrated these friends into their offline life or not had nothing to do with how frequently they played. Instead, it was gamers who were specifically motivated by team play and social capital building who were more likely to meet online friends in real life and include existing offline friends in their gameplay. Domahidi et al. further suggest that social online gaming could thus be a valuable tool for certain populations, such as those with anxiety, to connect with others and build friendships.

A 2018 study by Perry et al. found that the interactions occurring in online games are indeed quite effective at building the social capital that some gamers seek. The types of social capital strengthened- bonding or bridging- varies depending on the relationship between the players. The researchers looked at the difference between playing with three different groups of people- those who were friends or family members in real life, those who were online-only friends, and strangers. Bonding occurs between players who already know each other in real life. Bridging, as the name suggests, is the building of a new connection between strangers. Interestingly, this study found that playing games with online-only friends builds both bonding and bridging social capital. This stands in contrast to previous assumptions that only bridging occurs in online relationships, a perception which, as noted by Domahidi et al., causes many to see these friendships as less valuable or rewarding. Given the effect that social capital has on general well-being, Perry et al. assert that, for many social video game players, these online relationships being created are real and beneficial.

While online games certainly carry risks with them, the benefits of social play are worth addressing more often. Perhaps we worry so much about cyberbullying that we forget about the potential benefits. The opportunities for making long-term lasting friendships, strengthening current relationships, and building networks exists in many games for those who want to take advantage of it. Our understanding of the effect that involvement in online gaming circles has on young people will likely continue to grow as these types of activities become more and more widespread. 

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