Scientists say gaming can create “maladaptive” coping mechanism

gaming maladaptive, smartphone gaming
© Alpar Benedek

A new study found that people who experience intense boredom and turn to smartphone gaming may be creating “maladaptive” coping mechanisms, which worsen their real-world problems

While studies have looked at how loneliness can create internet addiction in teens, or how pandemic-related changes have struck the mental health of teen girls hardest, when it comes to smartphone gaming – there are less alarm bells going off in public.

Parents, struggling to simultaneously look after children and work, are not sinners for pushing a smartphone into the hands of their kids. For some children, gaming via apps is far more accessible than using a laptop or games console to run expensive games. For even more children, gaming this way leads to a sense of community and gives them room to develop memories together, despite the ongoing COVID pandemic.

“Deep and effortless state of concentration” is the goal

But what happens when people who are intensely bored, on a daily basis? Adults who find it difficult to engage with the real-world and to sustain their attention?

Researchers at the University of Waterloo set out to answer this question. They believe that these adults seek “flow” – which is a “deep and effortless state of concentration, in an activity linked to loss of awareness of time and space.”

Flow doesn’t inherently sound like a bad thing. So how can it become a problem?

Chanel Larche, study lead author and a PhD candidate in cognitive neuroscience at Waterloo, explained: “We found that people who experience intense boredom frequently in everyday life reported playing smartphone games to escape or alleviate these feelings of boredom.

“The problem with this boredom ‘fix’ is that they end up playing whenever they are bored, and end up experiencing problems tied to excessive game play.”

Professor Dixon says excessive game play creates cycle

The team had 60 people play Candy Crush, an infamously addictive fruit-puzzler, at various levels of difficulty. They found that individuals who game to escape boredom become more immersed in gameplay than non-escape players – using the reward feeling given by playing as a coping mechanism. The researchers further suggest that game apps have built-in measures to protect people from long escapism plays, such as time-limit options.

Cognitive neuroscience Professor Michael Dixon said: “Those who play to escape experience greater flow and positive affect than other players, which sets up a cycle of playing video games to elevate a depressed mood.

“This is maladaptive because, although it elevates your mood, it also increases your urge to keep playing. Playing too long may lead to addiction and means less time is available for other healthier pursuits.

“This can actually increase your depression.”

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