They’ve been linked with all sorts of negative things like violence and obesity but some video games can actually enhance psychiatric treatment, according to Dr. Paul Weigle, associate medical director of outpatient services at Natchaug Hospital.
Noting that the Food and Drug Administration is currently reviewing the first prescription video game for the treatment of children with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, or ADHD, Dr. Weigle said some of the reasons parents want kids off the electronics could actually be some reasons they benefit from them.
“Screen time displaces healthy habits like sleep and exercise, but it also displaces risky behaviors like sex, drug use, violence and even unsafe driving,” he said, adding that teen pregnancy has dropped by half since the year 2000 and teen drug and alcohol use has also declined. “This is what they’re not doing when they’re online.”
There are also some clear physical and psychological benefits from video game use, backed by research:
- Improved eye-hand coordination based on the active engagement with gaming.
- Sharpened vision, detail resolution and contrast sensitivity derived from the way gamers train their vision to perceive subtle changes on the screen.
- Potentially improved reading skills for those with dyslexia from playing action games.
- Better task-switching ability. “They often have to switch tasks on the fly in video games,” Dr. Weigle said.
- Improved working memory, especially visual and spatial memory, which is honed by action games.
- Enhanced ability to multitask.
“We know that video games actually grow the brain in these related areas,” Dr. Weigle said of the benefits he listed.
Gaming can be useful in everyday life, too.
- Surgeons who game perform better on laparoscopic procedure simulations.
- People undergoing medical procedures find gaming distracting to the point that they report lower pain and distress levels and less anxiety. The time to discharge for surgery patients who play video games after surgery is also lower on average.
- In what Dr. Weigle calls “behavioral currency,” withholding or rewarding kids who love gaming with game time can give parents a powerful motivational tool to encourage positive behavior and curb negative actions.
- Games like Pokemon Go!, Just Dance and Zombies Run can be a good source of exercise.
Besides video games, Dr. Weigle said, certain apps and computer programs have potential uses in treating mental illness and are typically accessible, autonomous, anonymous and inexpensive.
“While the results of computer-based interventions are largely unproven and unregulated, there are several ways we know they can help people,” he said. “Virtual reality exposure therapy, for example, is a powerful, evidence-based treatment for people with anxiety, phobias, social anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder.”
Certain computer interventions and phone applications help coach people with anxiety through calming exercises and regulated breathing, improve cognitive functioning in the elderly, track moods and medication dosing, and improve social skills for people with autism.
“The FDA is currently reviewing a prescription for a game designed to help kids with ADHD improve their attention span and working memory,” Dr. Weigle said. “It just shows that, in moderation, gaming can be a healthy pastime.”
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