For years parents have worried about how TV and videogames affect their children. Many are concerned that too much electronic entertainment will turn their children into depressed loners who spend all their time on the couch. But is there really an association between depression, TV watching and videogame playing? According to a recent study, this image is only half true: Passive television viewing is indeed a catalyst for depression, but no such link exists with videogames.

Using data collected in 1995 and again in 2002, the study aimed to find out how different media outlets affect children and their chances of becoming depressed later in life. By utilizing a sample set collected from the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health, Dr. Brian Primack and his colleagues at the University of Pittsburgh selected 4,142 adolescents who didn’t have depression, measured their media usage habits and then looked at the incidences of depression in the same sample seven years later.

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After that period of time, 7.4 percent of the participants exhibited signs of depression – and one common trait among those who showed symptoms was excessive TV viewing. In fact, the link was strong enough for the researchers to conclude, “Those reporting more television use had significantly greater odds of developing depression for each additional hour of daily television use.” This finding begs the question: What is it about TV that makes it more detrimental to an adolescent’s health than gaming?

In a word, advertisements. Most hour-long TV programs now have over 15 minutes of commercials. That adds up to a lot of time spent listening to advertisers tell you exactly what’s missing from your life – and how their product will improve it. “The bottom line is that when we do sit down and think it is nice and relaxing [to watch TV], the reason we feel that way is because our thinking brain is completely turned off,” Dr. Primack explains. “It can almost be related to commercials brainwashing us, and saying ‘you want this in your life.'”

Unlike TV watching, playing videogames requires constant attention for you to succeed. While a few TV channels like The History Channel and Discovery do require an active brain, most programs are a passive experience. The same cannot be said for videogames.

There’s another advantage to videogames: With the advent of online gaming for consoles like the Xbox 360 and PS3, gaming is becoming increasingly social. A 2008 study released by the Pew Research Group showed that roughly half of all gamers play with friends that they know from their offline lives, either in the same room or over the internet. The same study found that gamers were actually less socially isolated than non-gamers: Adolescents who played videogames were more likely to engage in “civic activities” than those who did not. These findings agree with Dr. Primack’s view of gaming as a type of bonding experience for adolescents and their friends, in stark contrast to television, which is rarely a social activity.

As a complement to Dr. Primack’s study, the Pew Research Group was able to look more closely at the type of games teenagers are playing. Their study uncovered just how much gaming has changed in the past few years. When it was released in 2005, Guitar Hero had the potential to be a best-selling game, but few predicted how fast it would rise to the top of the gaming world. The Pew Research Group’s study concluded that Guitar Hero, just four years after being released, was the “Most Frequently Played Videogame.”

But this title means less than you might think. The Pew Research Group learned more about gaming than just which titles adolescents played. They also learned that 80 percent of gamers play over five different types of videogames. Guitar Hero is closely followed by games from completely different genres, like Halo 3, Madden and Dance Dance Revolution.

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What does all of this mean? Dr. Primack’s study suggests that as closely as television and videogames are associated with one another, people respond to them very differently. In conjunction with the Pew study, a portrait emerges of gaming as a pastime that not only engages people more actively than television, but one that is also becoming an important form of social interaction with the current generation of adolescents. In the future, videogaming may be thought of as a distinct category of entertainment rather than a more interactive way to watch TV. In the meantime, studies like Dr. Primack’s and the Pew Research Group’s will hopefully serve as an important stepping stone to a more optimistic and factually correct image of videogames in the media.

Gavin Nachbar is a freelance contributor to The Escapist.

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