Do you have any gamers in your household? Chances are, whether you have children or don’t, the answer is yes. Video games are phenomenally popular with both kids and adults. And during the pandemic, the popularity and time share of gaming in our day-to-day lives has taken a big jump.
A lot of the attention about the effects of video games has focused on children and teens—with good reason, of course, given the popularity and the constant access that kids have to games. The effects of gaming on adults—including on adult sleep—tends to get overlooked.
Video games aren’t just a kid thing, and adults are vulnerable to sleep problems associated with gaming, too.
Who is gaming?
Well, according to recent data, a lot of us. An estimated 221 Million Americans play video games. We know video games are wildly popular with kids and teens. But a huge number of adults are playing also. According to recent statistics, 80 percent of gamers are over the age of 18, and the average age range of video game players in the US is 35-44 years.
There’s a lingering perception that video game players are mostly young men. While there is a gender gap in gaming, it’s not as big as you might think. Some pre-pandemic research found that 4 in 10 adult women play video games, and data from this year indicates that 45% of video game players identify as female.
The number of people playing video games rose by 6% during the pandemic, according to survey data collected for the Entertainment Software Association. This research also shows that more than half of gamers increased their time spent playing video games during the pandemic—and that 90% of pandemic video game players intend to keep playing even as life opens back up.
Given all that we’ve been through in the past year and a half, it’s not surprising that video games have become an even greater outlet and pastime for so many adults. Gaming for grownups provided a way to maintain social contact through months of stay-at-home time, and it’s been a source of escapism and stress relief.
I’m not here to tell you that you shouldn’t be playing video games. First, given the popularity of gaming, that’s an unrealistic message. Moreover, there is research showing that in moderate amounts, gaming can have psychological, cognitive, and physical benefits for adults and children. For example:
- Games with social and cooperative elements may have benefits for psychological well-being, social and cooperation skills, and empathy.
- There’s research indicating that gaming may help to improve emotional regulation.
- Gaming has been linked to increased gray matter in areas of the brain that handle problem solving, memory, and other mental processing tasks, and research has shown that gaming in young adults may have cognitive benefits including focus, task-switching, spatial skills, and memory.
- Games that include physical movement (sometimes called “exergames”) may contribute to better physical health and better psychological health, including in older adults.
It’s important to know, these potential benefits of gaming diminish or disappear when we play video games excessively, and when gaming crowds out other aspects of life, including socializing outside of gaming, work and family responsibilities, and sleep.
How video games impact adult sleep
A lot of the research on sleep and gaming has focused on children and adolescents, much less on the effects in adults. In children and teens, there is research showing gaming associated with several negative changes to sleep in children and teens, including:
- Less total sleep time
- Delayed bedtimes
- Taking longer to fall asleep
- Spending less time in deep, slow-wave sleep
Many of the studies that show negative sleep effects in kids and teens focus on the impact of gaming in the evening, within an hour or two before bed. Gaming close to bedtime can interfere with children’s sleep, but there’s some variation in the research over the degree of sleep disruption comes from evening gaming. We need more research in this area, and more research about the consequences for kids sleep that come from gaming at other times of day.
It’s important to note: Research shows that both the duration of gaming and the content of gaming (including violent, action-packed, and intense games) are likely to be significant factors in the effects of gaming on kids’ sleep—something that’s also emerging in research in adults. How much kids play video games, and the content experience of the games themselves, may be as important as when they play, in terms of sleep.
Here are 5 things adults need to know about how video games may impact their sleep
Gaming at night leads to mental and physical arousal. This 2005 study conducted in a group of young adult men found that gaming at night increased heart rate, reduced feelings of sleepiness, and reduced the power of brain wave activity that occurs in the transition to sleep. Researchers also found that nighttime gamers took longer to fall asleep and spent less time in REM sleep.
The takeaway? Gaming late at night and/or close to bedtime is likely to be mentally and physically stimulating and counterproductive to sleep. Keep games out of your PowerDown Hour before bed.
Bright lights You’ve heard me talk a lot about the impact of bright, artificial nighttime light on sleep. Gaming at night in front of a brightly lit video screen can have significant effects on the body that make it harder to fall asleep, and change sleep patterns.
The amount of gaming you do daily can affect your sleep quality and sleep quantity. A 2014 study of more than 800 adults, between the ages 18-94, investigated the impact of video game volume on sleep quality. Recognizing that daily gaming amounts vary, and that weekends are a time when people are likely to spend more time playing video games, researchers determined the average daily gaming volume for participants from information they collected about daily video game use over the course of one week. They found that the amount of time spent gaming was a predictor of several changes to sleep and sleep problems, including reduced sleep quality, fatigue, insomnia symptoms, and delayed bedtimes and wake times. Researchers also found:
- Gaming more than an hour a day was linked to a 30% higher risk of poor sleep quality
- More gaming volume also predicted longer sleep latency (aka a greater amount of time needed to fall asleep), lower sleep efficiency (a measurement of sleep quality), and a greater chance of using sleep medication
Other recent research found that longer stretches of gaming are linked to less total sleep time, more trouble falling asleep, and more daytime sleepiness.
The takeaway? As with so many of our other lifestyle choices and habits (including drinking alcohol and the composition of our diet), moderation matters. Regardless of the time of day you’re playing, commit to a daily time limit and stick to it. And be consistent about the space that gaming takes in your daily life, on the weekends as well as during the week.
Extended gaming can create social jet lag. Both studies above found that longer periods of gaming were linked to later bedtimes and later wake times, and greater daytime sleepiness. Gaming that alters bedtimes and wake times can lead to social jet lag—when our bodies are biologically out of sync with the social clock that keeps time for our daily lives. Social jet lag is a sign of circadian sleep-wake rhythms that are out of sync, and this can have significant impact on how we function and perform during the day, how we sleep at night, and our underlying mental and physical health.
The takeaway? Sleep thrives on routine and consistency. When we set limits for gaming, it’s important to stick to them, including on the weekends. A gaming binge on Saturday and Sunday is likely to cause significant changes to your weekend rest, including shifting of bedtimes and wake times that can throw circadian sleep-wake rhythms out of sync. Compromising sleep on the weekend, and interfering with our sensitive circadian sleep timing, can launch a domino effect that creates sleep problems throughout the next week and beyond.
Intense video games can be particularly disruptive to sleep. The content, pace, and mental demands of gaming appears to be a significant factor in gaming’s effect on sleep. What does intensity mean, in relation to video games? Intense video games are fast paced, often with lots of action and demands for rapid reactions and decision making. They require high degrees of focused attention and vigilance, and contain a lot of visual information onscreen for the brain to process. This 2019 study found that both the duration of video game playing and the intensity of games were predictors of poor sleep quality. Among the two factors, the intensity level of video games was a stronger predictor of problems with sleep quality than the duration of gaming.
The takeaway? If you’re a fan of action games and other games that demand a great deal of mental effort and a high degree of concentration, it’s even more important to regulate both the amount of time you spend playing, and to avoid playing these games near to bedtime, to protect your nighty rest.
Problematic gaming can mean major problems for sleep. For some people who play video games, gaming becomes a behavioral issue that can signficicantly disrupt sleep and well-being in many facets of life. The presence of gaming in our lives is still relatively new, and the scientific and medical consensus over what defines “problematic gaming” is still under a lot of debate. Is it an addiction? A behavioral disorder? Is problematic gaming a symptom of another psychological issue, such as depression or anxiety, or is it a primary behavioral and mental health problem?
Because our understanding of problematic gaming is still emerging, it’s difficult to arrive at an estimate about how common it is. Studies have placed the prevalence of problematic gaming anywhere between less than 1% to more than 30% of gamers. Some recent analyses of research suggest that problematic gaming may occur in a range of 3-5% of gamers.
Most often, problematic gaming is associated with playing games excessively, playing games to the detriment of physical and psychological well-being, and showing addictive behaviors in relation to games.
In recent years, a growing body of research has investigated the impact of problematic gaming on sleep. This new research from 2021 examined 34 studies on the relationship between problematic gaming and sleep. Across those nearly three dozen studies, researchers found problematic gaming strongly linked to several sleep problems, including:
- Sleep deprivation
- Short sleep duration
- Poor sleep quality
- Later bedtimes and wake times
- Delayed sleep phase disorder, a circadian rhythm disorder that involves sleep-wake rhythms being pushed significantly later into the evening
- Waking often during the night
- Daytime sleepiness
The takeaway? There is a lot of work to do in this area, to further our understanding of what issues contribute to problematic gaming, and how they affect sleep. If you or someone in your family plays games excessively, is highly preoccupied with gaming, has trouble stepping away from games to engage in other activities, can’t reduce their gaming amounts despite trying, is having trouble meeting the demands and obligations of their lives (and enjoying life outside of gaming), is having trouble sleeping, or is experiencing significant detrimental effects (mental, physical, emotional) in relation to their gaming, it’s important to speak to a health care provider. Treatment for problematic gaming, including cognitive behavioral therapy, may be needed alongside treatment for sleep problems.
Michael J. Breus, PhD, DABSM
The Sleep Doctor™