By Julia VanTine
MONDAY, Nov. 15 (HealthDay News) -- Most teens who play video games don't fall into unhealthy behaviors, but an "addicted" minority may be more likely to smoke, use drugs, fight or become depressed, a new Yale University study suggests.
The findings add to the large and often conflicting body of research on the effects of gaming on children, particularly its link to aggressive behavior. However, this study focused on the association of gaming with specific health behaviors, and is one of the first to examine problem gaming.
"The study suggests that, in and of itself, gaming does not appear to be dangerous to kids," said study author Rani Desai, an associate professor of psychiatry and public health at the Yale University School of Medicine. "We found virtually no association between gaming and negative health behaviors, particularly in boys."
"However, a small but not insignificant proportion of kids find themselves unable to control their gaming," she said. "That's cause for concern because that inability is associated with a lot of other problem behaviors."
The study was published Nov. 15 in the online edition of Pediatrics.
Using data from an anonymous survey of more than 4,000 public high school students in Connecticut, taken from a separate Yale study published in 2008, the Yale team analyzed the prevalence of teen gaming in general, "problematic gaming," and the health behaviors associated with both.
Problem gaming was characterized as having three main symptoms: Trying and failing to cut back on play, feeling an irresistible urge to play, and experiencing tension that only play could relieve.
How many hours teens actually spent thumbing their game consoles wasn't included in the definition of problem gaming, Desai noted. "Frequency is not a determining factor," she said. While problem gamers may in fact spend more hours at play, the hallmark of problem gaming is the inability to resist the impulse, she said.
Half the teens reported playing video games -- 76 percent of boys and over 29 percent of girls. Most of them (61 percent) reported gaming less than seven hours a week, while about 11 percent reported spending 20 or more hours a week at play.
Among boys, gaming itself wasn't associated with unhealthy behaviors. In fact, boys who played video games typically reported a higher grade average, were significantly less likely to smoke, and were more likely to say that they'd never used alcohol or marijuana, the study found. According to Desai, the fact that gaming in boys was linked to healthier behaviors may mean that for boys, it's normal to play video games.
Girl gamers, however, were more likely than girls who didn't play video games to get into serious fights or carry a weapon to school. "This finding may suggest not that gaming leads to aggression but that more aggressive girls are attracted to gaming," Desai said.
Both boy and girl gamers were likely to drink caffeinated beverages, including energy drinks, the study found. But girls drank more of them -- three or more per day, compared to boys' one to two servings a day.
Most teens who played video games reported none of the symptoms of problem gaming. However, 5 percent reported all three main symptoms. In this small minority, boys were more likely to report these symptoms (5.8 percent vs. 3 percent in girls), which the study associated with a higher risk of smoking, drug use, depression and fighting.
"This study shows that, for the vast majority of children, video games are pretty harmless," said Christopher J. Ferguson, an assistant professor of clinical and forensic psychology at Texas A&M International University in Laredo. However, the findings also suggest, "that problem gaming may be part of a constellation of unhealthy behaviors," added Ferguson, who has studied the link between video games and aggression.
He was quick to point out, however, that the new study does not show that gaming causes these other problems.
Still, "if a child can't turn off the games after a reasonable amount of time, isn't doing homework, isn't socializing with other kids -- all [of that] can be signs of a problem that may need to be addressed," Ferguson said.