Video gaming and sleep: The good, the bad, and the ugly!
Video gaming is becoming an increasingly common activity, particularly among children and adolescents. Research has found links between video gaming and impacts to various areas of emotional, cognitive and behavioural functioning, including aggressive behaviour, attention problems, depression and anxiety, poor academic achievement and impaired social functioning. But how might gaming affect our sleep?
There is a wide variety of research conducted in this area, which mostly considers two key points: (1) the potential impacts of video-gaming on sleep; and (2) the mechanisms that may underpin such impacts. So what does the research tell us?
What are the potential impacts of video-gaming on sleep?
There is a growing amount of evidence to suggest links between regular video-gaming at night time with later bedtimes, less overall sleep, taking longer to fall asleep and more daytime tiredness. Interestingly, research suggests that the overall impact of gaming on sleep may vary depending on factors including age, the time at which sleep is attempted, type of game, and duration of gaming. In younger children (under 15yrs), there is evidence to suggest gaming for 60 minutes before bedtime can significantly reduce both sleep quality (less deep or restorative sleep) and quantity (taking longer to fall asleep). Studies investigating this in older adolescents have also found an association between video-gaming and taking longer to fall asleep, however to a lesser degree than in younger children. Research conducted with adult participants has also found strong links between gaming and increased fatigue, poorer sleep quality, as well as both later bedtimes and wake up times.
How exactly does video-gaming impact our sleep?
Several different mechanisms have been proposed to explain the connection between video-gaming and poorer sleep quality. One of the most commonly researched mechanisms is physiological arousal - i.e., changes in things like heart rate, blood pressure and respiratory rate. Video-gaming is thought to increase physiological arousal in players due to the interactive nature of the activity, particularly games where the ‘survival’ of the player depends on their response to various stimuli in the virtual world. Interestingly, research focused on younger children highlights an increase in heart rate, blood pressure and respiratory rate, but research using groups of older adolescents and adults has not found any significant changes in physiological arousal. Instead, sleep changes may be accounted for by an increase in cognitive alertness in these populations, where people can get caught up in playing the game and not feel sleepy. Additionally, other research suggests sleep quality may be disturbed via exposure to the light omitted from screens while gaming. There is some evidence to suggest this light can suppress the secretion of the sleep hormone melatonin, which in turn can delay sleep, particularly if the user is very close to the screen.
So what can we do?
Video-gaming overall is not universally bad for sleep. However, to minimise the potential impact of gaming on sleep, consider following these tips and tricks:
Avoid playing interactive games that are cognitively, physically or emotionally stimulating within an hour of your usual bedtime
Keep your bedroom only for sleep - people who sleep well usually have strong associations between their bedroom environment and sleep. If we are playing alerting video-games in our bedroom, it is more likely our brains will get confused and the associations between bed and sleep will become weaker. Consider whether video-games can be played in another room, such as the lounge-room
Develop a regular bedtime routine - stop playing video games about an hour before bed and engage in a calming activity, such as reading, drawing, meditating, deep breathing or listening to music. Try to go to bed and get up at the same time every day (even on weekends!)
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Exelmans, L., Van den Bulck, J. Sleep quality is negatively related to video gaming volume in adults. Journal of Sleep Research, 2014, 24 (2), 189-196
King, D., Gradisar, M., Drummond, A. et al. The Impact of prolonged violent video-gaming on adolescent sleep: an experimental study. Journal of Sleep Research, 2012, 22 (2): 137-143
Weaver, E., Gradisar, M., Dohnt, H., Lovato, N., Douglas, P. The Effect of Presleep Video-Game Playing on Adolescent Sleep. Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine, 2010, 6 (2), 184-189