Can Gaming be a Healthier Social Media?
Last week, the U.S. Surgeon General released a new advisory about social media’s effects on youth mental health. The use of social media by youths is widespread; ~95% of teenagers between ages 13–17 report using a social media platform, with more than a third saying they use social media “almost constantly” (HHS). The advisory concluded that while social media may have some benefits, social media poses a risk to the mental health and well-being of children and adolescents.
When looking at usage, Gen Z engages with video games at a similar frequency to their interaction with social media. Roughly 90% of Gen Z play video games or enter virtual worlds, and they average 12.19 hours per week on these platforms (vs 13.92 hours per week spent on social media and video-sharing platforms). Further, after social media, gaming is the only other broadly adopted entertainment medium that offers social features. Online social interaction is not provided by alternatives like sports, TV / subscription services, radio / podcasts / music, and news apps / websites.
This week, we will be comparing the positive and negative effects of social media vs video games, and share why we believe video gaming could be the healthier alternative for youth.
Social Media vs Video Games
According to Pew Research, a majority of parents with adolescents say they are somewhat or very worried that their child’s use of social media could lead to problems such as being exposed to explicit content (71%), sharing too much about their personal life (60%), feeling pressured to act a certain way (59%), being harassed or bullied by others (54%), lower self-esteem (54%), and anxiety or depression (53%).
These potential concerns are also present for some parents as they engage with video games. We will not comment on the impact of social media on time wasted and as a distraction from homework (70% and 61% respectively) as we acknowledge that based on time spent, both mediums are time-consuming alternatives to other activities and education.
Today, we will highlight 4 primary risk areas across both social media and gaming:
1) Comparison and self-disatisfaction: The U.S. Surgeon General reported that social media usage is correlated with body dissatisfaction, disordered eating behaviors, social comparison, and low self-esteem. The U.S. Surgeon General highlighted that this is especially relevant among adolescent girls. When asked about the impact of social media on their body image, 46% of female teens aged 13-17 said social media makes them feel worse, 40% said it makes them feel neither better nor worse, and only 14% said it makes them feel better.
In gaming, since all players typically have access to the same avatar features, there is lower risk for the same self-comparison between avatars owned by two different individuals. There is also less of an association between these digital identities and in-real-life (IRL) “status signalers” (e.g., cars, travel, expensive watches and handbags) that are idealized on social media.
However, it is important to note that consumers are increasingly wanting their digital identities to represent themselves and are building more idealized versions of themselves in virtual worlds (The Future of Self-Expression is Pixelated). As platforms like Ready Player Me, Roblox, and Fortnite enable more sophistication in self-expression, there will likely be incremental risk of comparison and self-disatisfaction between the IRL self and the idealized digital self.
2) Excessive use and behavioral dysregulation: According to a study by the American Economic Association, 31% of social media usage may be attributable to self-control issues exacerbated by habit formation. Both video game and social media platforms are designed to maximize user engagement, which can encourage addictive behaviors. Studies have shown that these platforms have the potential to overstimulate the reward center in the brain and can eventually trigger pathways comparable to addiction (1, 2, 3). “Gamification” features are not the only ones that trigger this stimulation - push notifications, autoplay / infinite scroll, quantification and the public display of popularity (i.e., ‘likes’), and strong content recommendation are all examples of features that are designed to maximize engagement.
While video games are just as susceptible to driving potentially addictive forming behaviors, we believe that it is easier in games to build content gating features that can be introduced in more seamless ways. For example, TikTok introduced a parental control feature in March 2023 that allows parents to set screen time limits for their children; all accounts belonging to individuals under 18 were given an automatic 60 minute limit (TikTok). A user is kicked out of the app and cannot reopen it until the next day once this limit is surpassed. In games, there are features such as energy systems and daily level caps that introduce play limitations in a gentler and more organic way.
3) Doxxing / child safety: Due to the volume of identifying information that can be tracked through social media - photos, full name, age, location, schools attended, and links to other social media accounts - youths today are at risk of being “doxxed” (i.e., their personal information is leaked and shared to strangers online), putting them at high physical risk. Nearly 6-in-10 teenage girls say they have been contacted by a stranger on certain social media platforms in ways that make them feel uncomfortable (U.S. Surgeon General).
As mentioned above, video games offer a degree of anonymity, or pseudonymity, that can obfuscate all personal information. For example, unless voice chat is used, it is often impossible to determine the age and gender of another player, let alone any other identifying information. Publishers are very aware of the importance of ensuring the physical safety of their players - gaming platforms that cater specifically to players under 18 have stringent safety features such as highly flexible parental controls, chat filtering, and 24/7 monitoring and support.
4) Harassment, bullying, toxicity, and discriminatory behavior: According to the U.S. Surgeon General, 64% of adolescents are “often” or “sometimes” exposed to discriminatory content through social media and nearly half of U.S. teens ages 13 to 17 (46%) report that they have experienced at least one form of cyberbullying via social media. Certain demographics such as older teens, girls, and black and hispanic teens report significantly higher rates of cyberbullying.
Unfortunately, the rates for bullying and harassment are significantly higher in gaming. A study by Prereply found that 90% of gamers have experienced or witnessed emotional abuse or bullying while playing video games, and nearly 7 in 10 have considered quitting because of what they have witnessed. Most verbal attacks target their victims’ identities; >40% of respondents have been targeted for their gender (primarily women) and 1/3 have experienced attacks on their race, ethnicity, and perceived physical ableness. Over half of these respondents say they have changed their digital identity to avoid abuse and conflict. This toxic environment is harmful to mental health and the longevity of games.
Gaming further enhances the benefits of social media
It is important to acknowledge that social media has benefits - adolescents report that social media helps them feel more accepted (58%), that they have people who can support them through tough times (67%), that they have a place to show their creative side (71%), and are more connected to what is going on in their friends’ lives (80%).
We believe that gaming has the potential to even further enhance these benefits:
- Acceptance and support: 78% of players believe games help them build relationships (Entertainment Software Association). The isolating nature of social media (scrolling and interacting asynchronously with others) is not present in most multiplayer games today. In games, you are able to socialize and collaborate with others in a live setting. Researcher Rachel Kowert summarizes in her video game studies that players have been able to expand their social networks and social capital, both online and offline. This encompasses marginalized groups that we previously highlighted as more at risk. These individuals that can struggle to find peers with similar interests IRL can more easily find, connect, and most importantly grow their relationships with others in games.
- Creativity: In Newzoo’s most recent Media & Entertainment report, they highlight that gaming commands the most “active engagement” hours with 60% of time being spent on creating and playing. With user-generated content (UGC) platform Roblox catering to >28.7m players under the age of 13, it is clear that UGC will be a core feature for the next generation of gaming, providing players with a medium to explore their creativity.
Takeaway: Like social media, video games are a powerful tool for social connectivity. However, excessive usage can be harmful to youths. We believe that the design of video games and virtual worlds allows these platforms to further improve upon the benefits of social media while placing limitations on the negative impacts. Gaming features around digital identity and expression are better positioned to combat self-disatisfaction, limit the potential for bullying, and protect against doxxing. In summary, we believe the social fabric of the gaming industry offers a healthier (and safer) alternative to social media today. Yet there is still plenty of room for improvement, which we are excited to see the industry undertake.