Kids are turning to video games to help with their anxiety: Why experts say gaming can be part of the solution to their mental health struggles

Do video games deserve the bad rap they've gained among parents? Maybe not. Experts say gaming can help kids handle feelings of anxiety. (Photo: Getty Creative)
Do video games deserve the bad rap they've gained among parents? Maybe not. Experts say gaming can help kids handle feelings of anxiety. (Photo: Getty Creative)

Kids these days have more things to feel anxious about than ever. From the ongoing coronavirus pandemic to disruptions to their school routines, it's no surprise that earlier this month, the U.S. Surgeon General issued a public health advisory warning of a mental health crisis among youth.

In October, the American Academy of Pediatrics, American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry and Children's Hospital Association also declared a national emergency in children's mental health. So what can parents do to help their kids process the big emotions they may be feeling right now?

For starters, they can stop razzing kids about the amount of time they spend playing video games.

According to George Carey, founder and CEO of The Family Room, a company that studies the emotional priorities that drive consumer choices, more kids are turning to play video games as a way to distract from feelings of anxiety and depression.

"Kids have been exposed to things they never have been before and are being asked to sacrifice things they've never had to before," Carey explains. "Every promise we make to our children is being broken. We promise our kids laughter, we promise our kids playdates and we promise our kids birthday parties and school and friends and none of that has happened. The level of anxiety is rising ... we're all looking for outlets that can help and gaming and toys are good examples of that."

Carey says at The Family Room, they've identified different values that govern kids' choices in regard to their happiness, many of which associate with gaming. Their research shows kids place high value on things like spending time with their friends and family and having fun together.

"There's this perception that video games tend to be a way for kids to retreat from the world — that they sort of go into a quiet dark place and don't come out again," says Carey. "But that's just not how kids see it — they see the whole gaming platform as a way to make much more significant connections with their peers and their family."

In a time when, according to Carey, "anxiety is a massive tidal wave that's crushing kids by the million," these types of distractions are OK.

Video: Psychologist on pandemic-related youth mental health crisis

Monet Goldman, a licensed marriage and family therapist in California who uses video games in his therapy sessions, says they're more than OK ... they're beneficial.

"Right when the pandemic hit I had so much anxiety and I was trying so hard to distract myself while we were in lockdown," Goldman tells Yahoo Life. "I had a lot of those emotions – racing thoughts and overthinking — and that's the problem with anxiety sometimes: We think the more we think about problems the more we'll solve them but then we're like a hamster in a hamster wheel."

"We exert all this energy but we don't make any movement," he explains. "We might as well learn how to take a break, enjoy something and kind of detach from whatever is causing us that anxiety."

For Goldman and his young patients, video games offer that distraction, especially when they play together.

"They can play a game and also talk to me about the struggles they're going through," Goldman says. "It's kind of like in real life when you go out with a friend to go hiking and do an activity but you also have that ability to talk about what you're going through. The activity provides somewhat of that medium or channel to talk about it."

In addition to letting kids play video games on their own as a way to distract from and process anxious thoughts, Goldman says parents can use side-by-side gameplay to connect with their kids and help them talk through feelings they'd otherwise bury.

"The goal is to have a relaxing steady game where kids are able to share their interests and what's important to them," he says. "When we play with our kids, we become a lot less judgemental of the games. It's a good way for kids to show parents their interests ... you can enter their world and see what they're doing and what they're proud of. That means a lot to kids."

Keegan and Hilary Vickers say gaming has helped their 11-year-old daughter, Andie, learn to deal with anxiety and panic attacks. (Photo: Hilary Vickers)
Keegan and Hilary Vickers say gaming has helped their 11-year-old daughter, Andie, learn to deal with anxiety and panic attacks. (Photo: Hilary Vickers)

Keegan and Hilary Vickers are parents of two children, Andie, 11, and Abbot, 7, who live in Orlando, Fla. Hilary says her daughter, Andie, was diagnosed with generalized anxiety disorder at age 5 and often has panic attacks that are helped by playing video games.

"The games provide an escape from the stressors anxiety brings on," she says. "So when a panic attack hits, getting lost in a game to refocus her mind and attention is so helpful."

Keegan says he also uses gaming to teach Andie ways to handle real-life anxious feelings.

"I've had conversations with both of my children during video games about the link between anxiety and excitement how they are a similar bodily response," he says. "If you pay attention, you'll notice your body feels much the same during intense gameplay and moments of anxiety and panic, only your state of focus is different."

"If you master that feeling during video games you can translate it to help manage the physical response to anxiety," he continues. "It teaches them the physical response to anxiety might be uncomfortable but it's not dangerous."

Kristene Geering, a child development expert at the Parent Lab app, tells Yahoo Life that at the end of the day, video games might get a bad rap but it really depends on the game, the kid and the situation.

"If kids find a game that they feel helps them deal with their feelings — especially if it's something they can play with their parents and use as a bonding activity — that can be really beneficial," says Geering. "Some games provide the opportunity to work in cooperative teams, create new worlds and practice problem-solving. Observe your child as they try these out and talk with them about how they're feeling before, during, and after game time."

Like anything else, Geering says moderation is key when it comes to video games.

"Video games are also often designed to be as enticing — some would even say addictive — as possible, so knowing your child and having limits is important," she says. "When setting those limits, aim to do so collaboratively so your child learns how to make healthy decisions for themselves when it comes to screens in general."

"You're still in charge, of course, but if you set an arbitrary limit where your child doesn't understand the reasoning behind and isn't part of its creation, it can drive a wedge between you and might damage your relationship," Geering continues. "If parents see themselves as gentle teachers and the ultimate goal is to help their kiddos learn how to make these decisions on their own someday, that can take a lot of the adversity out and replace it with a feeling of, 'I'm on your side, kid.'"

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