FRIDAY, May 6, 2011 (HealthDay News) -- Contrary to what some might think, spending hours online playing video games and interacting with others through avatars may contribute to emotional health, if virtual gaming partners or opponents include real-world family members, findings from a new data analysis suggest.
Various research has touted the negative effects of spending too much solitary time playing video games, so "people think [video] games are bad for you psychologically," explained study author Cuihua Shen. "We challenge that assumption," she said.
"If I am playing with existing family and friends, I am extending my social life in cyberspace, and that is actually good for me psychologically," said Shen, an assistant professor of emerging media and communication at the University of Texas at Dallas.
However, this assertion comes with some caveats. Shen's study found that the quality of family communication took a nosedive when kids and young adults -- primarily those in their 30s -- failed to include family and friends in the many hours they spent playing video and virtual reality games.
In addition, even virtual gamers who played regularly with their families and thus expanded their time together reported the quality of that communication was "slightly lower" than usual.
Shen and co-author Dmitri Williams, of the University of Southern California, analyzed surveys of over 5,000 participants in Sony Online Entertainment's massively multiplayer online (MMO) game, EverQuest II (EQ2). They collected self-reported information about players' psychosocial well being -- including their level of loneliness, family communication time and quality -- and their Internet use, and also looked at Sony's proprietary game server information about players' online behavior.
The investigators found that gamers who played EQ2 with family members experienced various psychosocial benefits, including more family communication time, even though the quality of that communication was not ideal, Shen and Williams reported in a recent issue of the journal Communication Research. Interactions during online games may not be "as nurturing or meaningful as those from more conventional media," the researchers explained.
Gamers who did not play with family experienced the opposite effects, however, since their family communication time was essentially replaced by their online gaming habits. What's more, the quality of their family communication suffered dramatically.
Although the study participants included youth, gamers were overwhelmingly young adult males, aged 31 years on average, who were well-educated and had incomes greater than in the general U.S. population. The gamers spent nearly 30 hours online each week, outside of work, and most of that time was spent playing EQ2.
In surveys with a control group, EQ2 players who spent a large portion of their online time meeting new people experienced a better sense of community online, but increased loneliness and less family time. In fact, the game was associated with poorer family communication in general, although the effect was weaker for those playing with family members, the researchers noted.
"Playing MMOs can be good for your psychosocial health but it really depends on the purpose, context and type of players," Shen said. "There really are a lot of nuances."
So rather than have parents continue their "futile efforts" to stop kids and adult children from spending so much time playing online, Shen suggested they join them. "Parents could try to get into games as well," she said, describing the online avatar world as a "place to socialize outside normal settings." Playing together may even spark later game-related discussion topics and help "improve family communication" in the long run, she suggested.
Shen does not advocate that online gaming take the place of more traditional outside family activities, such as picnics or sports. "I'm not suggesting that we should stop playing outside," she said, but parents can "take the virtual world as an opportunity to bond with their kids."
Players who went online mostly for information-gathering purposes, however, experienced less loneliness, better and longer family communication time and a greater sense of neighborhood and workplace/school community, the researchers reported.
The findings of beneficial psychosocial effects associated with online playing with family members are not surprising to Michael Gilbert, a senior fellow at the Annenberg Center for the Digital Future at the University of Southern California.
Drawing on his research in Internet use that points to the explosion of online social media as a potential cause or contributor to the breakdown in face-to-face family time that has occurred since the first half of the decade, he said, "to my mind, it's kind of simplistic."
"If we're using social media as a family, I think that, indeed, yes, this activity can definitely draw a family together," he said. "It's never the technology [to blame for decreased family face-to-face time], it's how we use it."
There's information on kids and the Internet at the Nemours Foundation.