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You might have heard that video games are bad for you, but psychologists think they might be a useful therapeutic tool for improving some people’s mental health.

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[♪ INTRO ].

You might have heard that video games are bad for you. They'll rot your brain, or make you violent, or antisocial, or something.

And parents often fret about what their child or teen's gaming hours are doing to their brains. But what if we're thinking about video games all wrong? Well, that's what some psychologists think.

Counterintuitive as it might seem, they're studying how we can use video games to improve mental health, especially in kids and teens. Studies estimate that only about a third of American teenagers with mental health disorders actually receive treatment. That may be because their parents are worried about the cost of therapy – which isn't always covered by insurance – or because the kids are worried about the social stigma that comes with “seeing a shrink”.

So some psychologists think there's another way to help them out—give them video games. Already, they're a nearly ubiquitous feature of the American childhood—surveys estimate that over 90% of kids between the ages of 2 and 17 in the US play video games. So they're socially acceptable, and relatively inexpensive.

Plus, since kids can play in their own homes, they can maintain their privacy. And video games are fun. You might not think it's important that therapy be fun, but enjoyment of an activity does increase your motivation to keep doing it.

And all that means there's huge potential for certain video games to help mental health—but only if they actually work. And they just might. Though the evidence is very preliminary, several trials have shown promise in using specially designed video games to treat mild to moderate mental illness.

Many of these therapeutic games are based on already existing treatments like cognitive behavioral therapy – a type of good ole talk therapy which aims to help people identify and alter problematic thoughts or behaviors. For example, researchers in New Zealand created a game called SPARX for treating depression. Through playing, kids ultimately learn strategies for relaxation, social interaction, and dealing with difficult emotions and situations much like they would in therapy.

But that's all disguised as an interactive fantasy video game. When the game's designers compared it with regular counseling in a trial of nearly 200 kids, both groups showed about equal improvement, indicating that SPARX might be just as effective as therapy. And similar results were found by researchers working with a game called MindLight.

In MindLight, children navigate through a scary mansion, learning techniques to control their anxiety along the way. And in a preliminary trial of 174 kids with anxiety, six weekly sessions of gameplay worked about as well as eight weekly sessions of cognitive behavioral therapy. Similar trials have been conducted on games designed for adults with equally positive results.

Though such findings still need to be replicated by other researchers – ones who weren't involved in making the games – before these games could become widely-accepted therapies, the results are encouraging. Scientists are now designing games to try and treat everything from addiction to eating disorders to ADHD. There are even some in the works to help manage psychosis.

Other researchers are hoping to create social support networks in virtual reality, or integrate video games into therapeutic programs. And they might not have to create all these games from scratch. Researchers have found playing certain simple distracting games like Peggle and Bejeweled can improve mood, so they could help manage stress or even depression.

And the right game could maybe even help treat illnesses like PTSD. In one 2010 study, researchers had 60 healthy participants watch a traumatic film and then play Tetris, a word game, or no game at all. In the following week, subjects had fewer flashbacks concerning the film if they had played Tetris compared to the other two groups.

The researchers think that may be because visual games like Tetris somehow interfere with the storage of the traumatic images as long-lasting memories. Though, this has yet to be confirmed with people who've experienced actual traumatic events. And the word game actually made flashbacks worse in one experiment— so the choice of game seems to be really important.

None of these studies invalidate the research that has found some games, especially violent ones, can possibly increase stress and aggression in some people. So if doctors are looking into using video games therapeutically, they'll need to be careful about which they use and how they use them. Not to mention though, they'll have to consider the effects of different games might have on different types of people, because even games designed to be therapeutic probably won't work the same for everyone.

But, the results coming from these preliminary studies using video games in a more clinical way are exciting, especially to psychologists working with younger patients. And that's because mental health disorders seem to be a growing problem among children and teens in America, with rates of things like depressive episodes and anxiety jumping 20 to 30 percent in recent decades. While traditional therapies can be highly effective, they often don't reach the kids who need them the most.

So even though there's a lot of work to be done, there's hope that video games will one day make therapy more widely accessible, leading to happier healthier kids. And in the meantime, maybe you can tell the haters that rag on you for your gaming to chill out a bit. Thanks for watching this episode of SciShow Psych!

If you liked learning about how video games might be used for good, you might like our episode on whether violent video games actually make you more aggressive. [♪ OUTRO ].