PROVO — It’s a regular occurrence for Dr. Sarah Coyne, a professor of family life at BYU, to see her son hop onto Fortnite for a nighttime session with his friends.
It happened before the coronavirus pandemic hit Utah. It's happened more since, and she's just fine with it.
“I suspect that a lot of video game time has increased dramatically,” she said. “As we're all inside and we're using screens at higher levels than is typical — that's certainly the case in my own home. I think that parents can give themselves a little break and not feel guilty about this additional screen time because everyone is just trying to survive.”
Coyne would be the one to ask.
She was the lead researcher in a recent BYU study about video game addiction. The six-year project, the longest ever done on video game addiction according to the university, found that about 90% of gamers don’t have harmful playing habits.
So some extra game time isn’t likely to have negative consequences — whether there’s a pandemic or not.
Coyne and her team set out to answer a question that parents have been batting around or decades: Is there long-term harm to playing video games?
“We wanted to look at it kind of over the course of adolescence to find out: Is this actually a really big problem?” Coyne said. “Because maybe somebody has symptoms of addiction for a year and then they get better and it's fine — it's not a long-lasting thing, which would suggest that video game addiction is kind of overblown.”
In the end, that’s what they discovered. The research followed people through adolescence and emerging adulthoods and looked at a variety of different behaviors and outcomes to determine the effects of video games. They looked for depression and anxiety, monitored financial and vocational outcomes, and took note of aggression and prosocial empathy to help lead to their findings.
“Stereotypically, you kind of hear of the gamer who's living in his mom's basement and he can't hold down a job and he's like falling apart all over the place, right?” Coyne said. “And we didn't find any evidence of that. So we looked at the likelihood of them being in college, or not, and then also kind of any financial stress that they were having. And really, there’s no evidence of that.”
Verizon’s reported a 75% increase in video gaming, and the game-streaming company Twitch says the platform has seen a 57% jump in traffic since the pandemic took hold in the United States. While that isn’t harmful for most gamers, there is a significant minority that experiences negative results.
“They really struggle to keep gameplay inbounds and have a serious conflict with friends and families,” Coyne said.
The 10% of gamers who fall into the pathological gaming group have a dependency on video games. When compared to the nonpathological group, those in the study displayed higher levels of depression, aggression, shyness, problematic cellphone use and anxiety by emerging adulthood, the study found.
“If you have a kid (where) that's all they can think about, all they can talk about so they're really obsessed with it — that's a sign,” Coyne said. “Showing withdrawal symptoms when they’ve stopped playing; needing more and more and more video game time; significant conflict with parents with family and with friends; lying or sneaking video games.
“So there's kind of this more clinical list of things that parents can be on the lookout for, but also recognizing that video games are probably really an important part of teenage life right now.”
And, for the most part, an unharmful one.
“Video games are not bad by themselves,” Coyne said. “It's kind of the relationship that we have with them that can be problematic.”