Are phones, social media and games bad for mental health and attention spans? Or is it just media sensationalism

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In Series 2 Episode 4 of the Health Points podcast Ben Wilkins and Pete are interviewing guest Niklas Johannes, who has researched the effects of always being connected via phones on attention and cognitive control. Niklas got interested in this topic after reading a book by Nicholas Carr about how the internet changes our thinking and makes it more shallow. He also discusses his interest in studying the psychology of play and the effects of video games on mental health.

The conversation then delves into whether constant connectivity affects focus and concentration, with Niklas stating that motivation plays a significant role in staying focused. He shares his research on the mere presence effect of phones draining cognitive capacities but finds that people are able to ignore distractions if they are motivated to do so. They discuss how mobile phones and social media have been portrayed as contributors to mental health challenges, but Niklas believes there is a reluctance to adopt new tools along with sensationalization for media panics.

His research later shifted towards examining how digital media, particularly social media, impact well-being, which he describes as a broad spectrum with small effects overall but some negative impacts under specific circumstances (such as body image comparison among young girls).

You can listen to this episode below:



Episode summary:

  • The discussion revolves around the idea that some activities are considered better than others and whether they are good for an individual.
  • There is a conversation about the impact of distractions on attention and focus, and how to engage in activities that are beneficial for mental and physical health.
  • The perception that phones, devices, and social media are distracting is discussed, along with strategies to maximize attention and focus.
  • The psychology of play is explored, highlighting its importance in human development. Video games are seen as an extension of play experiences.
  • Research has been conducted on the effects of gameplay on mental health, particularly in relation to restrictions imposed by certain countries.
  • Researchers at the University of Oxford worked with video game companies to gather behavioral data on players over a six-week period. They found that the correlation between gameplay and mental health was extremely small, suggesting that video games have minimal impact on well-being. The study also highlighted the importance of using high-quality measures in research and conducting longitudinal studies for more accurate results. Future research may focus on exploring short-term effects of gameplay on mood and delving into how these effects translate into overall well-being in the long run.
  • Niklas provides tips and wisdom for designing health games in the field of health gamification. He advises against using dark patterns that make people feel like they're losing out socially, and instead encourages creating a sense of group participation. He also emphasizes giving players autonomy while finding a balance between generosity and rigidity with rewards. 

Outline:

  • Chapter 1: Introduction to Nicholas's Background and Research, Timestamp: 00:24-00:42
    • Summary: Introduction to Nicholas and his background as a researcher at the Oxford Internet Institute, focusing on adolescent wellbeing in a digital age. Mentions his PhD research on the effects of constant phone connectivity on attention and cognitive control.
  • Chapter 2: Nicholas's Journey into the Field of Study, Timestamp: 00:48-01:03
    • Summary: Ben asks Nicholas about his interest in this area of research and how he got involved in studying the impact of digital devices on mental health.
  • Chapter 3: Historical Perspective on Attention and Focus, Timestamp: 06:08-08:54
    • Summary: Nicholas discusses the historical context of attention and focus, mentioning the criticism of writing instead of memorization in ancient Greece. He highlights the connection between focus and mental wellbeing.
  • Chapter 4: The Impact of Digital Devices on Mental Health, Timestamp: 13:44-16:04
    • Summary: Ben asks Nicholas about the impact of digital devices, specifically the effects of notifications on attention and focus. Nicholas explains the importance of emphasizing pleasant aspects and progress in activities to improve mental wellbeing.
  • Chapter 5: Maximizing Attention and Focus, Timestamp: 16:38-19:06
    • Summary: Ben asks Nicholas how to maximize attention and focus. Nicholas suggests emphasizing enjoyable aspects of activities and incorporating personal motivation into the process.
  • Chapter 6: Early Interest in the Psychology of Play, Timestamp: 20:15-21:37
    • Summary: Ben explores Nicholas's early interest in the psychology of play, discussing how play allows individuals to experiment with different behaviors and gain valuable experiences in human development.
  • Chapter 7: Research on Games and Play, Timestamp: 22:44-24:56
    • Summary: Ben asks Nicholas about his research on games and play. Nicholas mentions collaborating with video game companies to gather behavioral data and emphasizes the importance of transparency in research.
  • Chapter 8: Challenges in Obtaining Data from Games Companies, Timestamp: 28:18-29:10
    • Summary: Ben inquires about the challenges of obtaining data from games companies. Nicholas explains that the process was slower than expected but highlights the potential for future collaborations and inclusivity.
  • Chapter 9: Research Methodology and Findings, Timestamp: 29:46-35:52
    • Summary: Nicholas discusses the research methodology used, including measuring emotions and thoughts over a six-week period with a large sample size. He highlights the longitudinal aspect of the research and the need for more short-term studies on the effects of gameplay on mental health.
  • Chapter 10: Future Research Directions, Timestamp: 35:52-36:28
    • Summary: Ben asks Nicholas about future research directions in this field. Nicholas suggests narrowing the time frame to examine short-term effects of gameplay on mental health.
  • Chapter 11: Valuable Insights from Nicholas's Research, Timestamp: 37:34-38:56
    • Summary: Ben asks Nicholas about the valuable insights he has gained from his research. Nicholas emphasizes the importance of finding a balance between digital devices and mental wellbeing and the need for further exploration in this area.
  • Chapter 12: Conclusion and Farewell, Timestamp: 38:56-39:16

Episode Transcript:

Ben
Hi, everyone, and welcome to another episode of Health Points. I'm your co host, Ben Wilkins, and I have with me today, Pete. Do you want to say hi, Pete?

Pete
Hi, everyone.

Ben
Brilliant. And today we have us Niklas. Johanna's. Niklas's currently working at a fintech startup and prior to his role was a researcher at the Oxford Internet Institute, where he was part of the research program adolescent wellbeing in a digital age. During his PhD, he focused on the effects of always being connected via our phones and the impact on attention and cognitive control. Nicholas, it's great to have you on the episode today.


Niklas
Yeah, thanks for having me.


Pete
Hey, Nicholas, I'd love to start by asking how you got into this area of interest.


Niklas
I think this book is about 1213 years old at this point. I remember doing my bachelor's or masters. I read the Shilos by Nicholas Carr. I don't know if you know the book, but the main thesis was that the Internet, particularly the Internet, not just tools or digitals, but the Internet and everything that relates to it, somehow changed the way we think actually makes our thinking more shallow. And I found that really fascinating at the time because I was always interested in tech. I was always interested, just from a psychological standpoint, in how we use tools and how human tools or the tools that humans use shape our thinking. That was my base interest. And over time, I also became more interested in the psychology of play. Not necessarily gameplay, video gameplay, but just in how do humans play with each other?


Niklas
What are the functions of play? Why do we do it? Do animals play as well? And those two together? So those two interests led me to focus on studying the effects of video games on mental health and cognitive control and cognitive functioning, if you will.


Pete
So I feel like we should dive in a bit and find out what sort of games you like to play. Obviously, that was part of the background.


Niklas
Probably listeners are going to call me, classify me as a filthy, casual, story driven games. I am fascinated by the art of video games. So right now, I started, I think, two days ago I started playing stray. I don't know if you know that one, the cat game. I do play the occasional AAA title, but anything that has a decent story or just fascinating gameplay tickets. My interest, I think that the most impactful game I ever played was on the topic of mental health was hellblade. If you ever played this one, portraying a viking woman and her mental health struggles, which I thought was really well done and pretty cool. And I stay away from any souls likes because they just make me too frustrated.


Pete
Do you know? I'm fascinated by what you said about the shallow thinking part of games there, because I think last week I was reading a research paper about how the metaverse and VR is more immersive and is enabling higher productivity, like deeper thinking, because we're completely into it. And so I know this isn't talking about your research yet, but I'm interested in what you're thinking about this shallow thinking.


Niklas
Just going by the evidence, which I prefer to do, there's absolutely no indication that our ability to focus, our ability to concentrate has declined over, say, past 20 years. Humankind is getting better. We're getting more intelligent, we're getting more advanced, more sophisticated. That said, obviously the counterargument would be what? Maybe it would have gone quicker if we didn't have the Internet or digital media, right. And in my experience, I think the argument of saying it becomes harder in the so called attention economy to stay focused one thing. If you get a bunch of notifications at the same time, that argument definitely has merit. Ultimately, what I believe, though, personally, and what I think the evidence suggests, is that it all comes down to motivation.


Niklas
In the experiments that I ran in the research that I know of, people are quite good at ignoring notifications, at staying focused, if they are motivated, if they want to be. I think our thinking gets shallow if we're bored with our task, if we don't like what we're doing, because then we're more easily distracted.


Pete
Well, I've definitely got deep thinking right now because this is really mean. I'll hand over to Ben in a minute, but I'm interested to know what sort of research you ran. Can you tell us about that in order to find this out?


Niklas
Yeah. So, at the time when I started my phd was 2015, there were two what I thought were extremely cool papers that showed that if you just put your phone next to you on your desk without it vibrating or doing anything, that it drains your cognitive capacities. Right. You become less focused just because it's there. That was termed the mere presence effect. And I thought it was really fascinating because the idea to me seemed very intuitive, as in, your phone is your window to your friends and family. It's a window to entertainment. If it's there, it's a bit like putting a chocolate bar there. Or marshmallow. You all know the marshmallow test for kids, right? It's really hard to resist, so I just set out to replicate this.


Niklas
I did those experiments again with a couple of extensions under the premise of, hey, is it really hard to ignore? Is it hard to resist. I measured people's ability to inhibit impulses because I thought, like, well, if it's really hard, if it drains you, then it should become harder to do a task where you need to concentrate and stop yourself from doing impulsive stuff. And the results were just, people didn't have a problem, at least within the half hour that they came to the lab. They were perfectly able to ignore it. And that's something that I found repeatedly in experiments.


Niklas
But also, if you look at larger cohort studies that we did, where you just look at mobile phone data, objectively measured with your screen time app, compare that to mental health or focus, that relation, or that correlation between the two is fairly small, surprisingly, for some, I guess.


Pete
So.


Ben
In that case, why is it every single headline that I read says the opposite to what you've just indicated, that actually, mobile phones and social media are such a huge contributor to mental health challenges, this lack of attention, lack of focus in society.


Niklas
I mean, I could speak about this for hours, but I'm going to try to give you the short version. I think there's two pathways here. One is the charitable interpretation. The other one is the less charitable interpretation. The charitable one is that we are usually a bit reluctant to adopt new tools. When I say we, then I mean everyone. I mean humankind. If you look throughout the history of humans, whenever a new tool came around, a new media came around, people were reluctant to adopt them. Why that is maybe because it's a fear of the unknown. It changes. Like, we're usually quite resistant to change, right? It goes all the way back to ancient Greece, when Plato was telling Socrates that he should stop doing that new thing of writing stuff down instead of memorizing it. Right?


Niklas
So we have evidence of quite literally thousands of years where people were skeptical of new technological developments. And given how fast technology has developed in the past 20 to 30 years, it's really unprecedented. So I understand that people are a bit scared, especially if you're a parent. A new generation comes along, you might not be able to understand what's going on, what your kids are doing, so you become a bit reluctant. That's the charitable interpretation. I think that's perfectly reasonable, perfectly human. And ideally, we look at evidence and say, like, hey, the evidence suggests that this fear is unfounded, so let's move on. As hard as that seems, the less charitable interpretation is obviously that some people benefit off of writing books that create media panics. Right? The benefit off of having hot takes on telly, the benefit of making people scared.


Niklas
And then, obviously also selling them the cure to whatever scares them so potentially.


Ben
Is the sensationalization of the real world. To create more readers, get more clickbait click throughs, and sell more papers is contributing to inflamed views and opinions of how the impact of digital tools and media.


Niklas
I think that's a better summary than I just gave.


Pete
So where did you go next? That's why after that sort of research about the phones and distraction, and the evidence said that it's not distracting.


Niklas
Well, first of all, I didn't prove it, right? I think I provided evidence to the contrary just because, sorry, I tried to stay away from those deterministic statements, because otherwise you fall into the same trap that I accuse other people of falling into, which is making really deterministic statements. But as for the when next, well, it's a fairly small step from being able to focus, being able to concentrate to how do you feel mentally? Right. Mental health has always been an interest of mine. So the next step was at the time, from being constantly connected to, hey, how do social media, how do people use them? Probably shouldn't say what does it do to them more, how does the use of social media impact people? Right. So that was the next step.


Niklas
I just want to know, how are digital media related to our well being? And as you can imagine, there's several books to be written here. But the short summary is that, again, the effects are probably, we're looking at a very broad spectrum here. Right. Social media is such a broad category. I don't know, it's a bit like saying, what's the effect of food on your physical health? It's just such a broad category that it's really hard to make general statements here. Like, if you eat chocolate every day and exclusively chocolate, then obviously it's going to be bad for you. But then to say, like, all foods are bad would be an overreach to bring this back to social media. The effect seems to be fairly extremely small. But there are some people, under some circumstances, under some specific types of use.


Niklas
For example, I know young girls who compare, make a body image comparison to someone else, where it seems like the evidence suggests that this has a negative impact on mental health.


Ben
I suppose that's no different to any other risk factors of a disease or genetic predisposition. We're saying that certain people in the population may be greater affected by these phones, digital devices and social media more than others. In the same way. Any of a risk factor for anything else?


Niklas
Yeah, exactly. At the same time, I do understand the need of the public, not policymakers, to say, like, well, you can't always just say, it depends, right? With vaccines or anything else, with any other kind of treatment. In the end, what we want to know is, does it work for a large group of people? Does it work for everyone? Are there some people who are so negatively affected that we just need to ban this thing for everyone? Right. That's how we do it as a society. So I understand the need to at least the question of, hey, should we restrict our hours on social media? Should we restrict how many hours we play video games as an entire country, as an entire European Union, as an entire world?


Niklas
So, like, the moment you go to that level of abstraction, obviously you lose that level of nuance. And I understand why you wouldn't then why? It depends. It's not a satisfactory answer.


Pete
I'd say that's really interesting. So for me, I'm definitely at risk of this sort of dopamine hit from social media. I had to uninstall TikTok because every time I used it, I lost two or 3 hours. I found it fascinating, full of gamified challenges, particularly in the early days and in terms of addiction, and it's only an addiction if it's harming your life or your lifestyle. And I was like, well, I'm not getting my work done, so I've got to get rid of it. And I have a similar thing with games sometimes. So right now I'm playing Marvel snap. Not right now, but in general. And a game might only take five or six minutes, but you go, oh, that's 45 minutes gone. You're like, oh, I should be doing some work.


Pete
So I find that I always end up having to delete some stuff that is too effective on me in order to go back to, shall we say, being a normal, functioning human in society.


Niklas
That, to me, sounds like a perfectly healthy and reasonable approach to any kind of digital device. And like you said, if you say you for yourself, notice that it's not good for you. My counterpoint would be, if you're 2 hours on TikTok, what we shouldn't let happen is to feel guilty because we're not reading a book. I think that's an elitist narrative. This whole idea that some activities are better than others, what matters is it good for you? Right? And if after 2 hours of TikTok, you feel elated and you say, like, I learned so much stuff, I guess he probably didn't. If you feel depleted and bad and guilty, the next question is, why do you feel guilty? Right.


Pete
Oh, no. I just felt that I needed to do a dance challenge.


Niklas
Speaking of physical activities, I'd say go for it.


Pete
Yeah, very true.


Ben
So, first of all, Pete, I didn't realize you're on TikTok. And I don't know if I'm elated or disappointed with you being on TikTok.


Pete
I'm not anymore.


Niklas
Okay.


Ben
You're not anymore. I guess I'm similar. There are some mobile games that I've had to delete just because I get too far into them. But then again, it's no different for me in things like chocolate and biscuits at home. I know that if it's there, I'll go and seek it out and eat it. If it's not there, it won't even come to my mind, so why? Yeah, it's exactly the same. What I'd like to ask you about, Nicholas, is around. You say, about the impact on attention and focus and actually things like notifications going off. But actually, the key thing is the motivation to engage in something, not the distraction itself. So how do we use that knowledge to have people better engage with the activities they should be engaging in for mental health and well being. Physical health and well being.


Niklas
That's a big one. I'd say, most of all, make sure that whatever you do is something you want to do. I mean, it sounds really simple, but there's a difference between have to and want to goals in your life. And if you feel like you have to get physically healthy, you have to go for a run. It's really easy to dissuade you from it. Right. The next question becomes, how do you make activities that might seem a bit unpleasant? Right. I'm not a runner, but I've been told runners I exist. I still think that's probably a myth, but some people swear in it, right? They love going to the gym, they love working out. And I think ideally, if you emphasize, if you underline the pleasant aspects of an activity, if you underline progress, that's something that we really enjoy.


Niklas
Ideally, you bring in, like, a couple of other human motivation or factors of human motivation, which is, does this happen out of your own volition? Do you have control over your activity? Do you feel like it relates you to other people? It makes you part of a group? I think all of those are ways to make whatever we should be doing, even though I'm not a big fan of saying that. Right. Because ultimately, it comes down to what you want to do, all of those aspects a bit more appealing to people, and maybe therefore, easier to achieve and more make people more motivated to do them.


Pete
I think there was two things there. One is like you were mentioning self determination theory in terms of that, and the other one is something we come across a lot in gamification, is having to volunteer to play makes it successful. And if you force people to play, it does not often have to mention there was this case, Disney world, of a motivation system for getting the cleaners to be more productive. But eventually they called it the electronic whip, and they went on strike because they were made to play it, and so they wouldn't want to play. They felt like they had to, and it had all the wrong connotations. And yet actually some slight tweaks in how it was put across would have made a very different thing. So I can see exactly where you're coming from, Nicholas.


Niklas
No, that's a great point. I think the moment you take volition or autonomy out of any behavior, extremely unpleasant for us and a counterproductive and bad for us, frankly, if you have to do something that you don't want to do, that's usually also the threshold. I assume when you talked about your TikTok earlier or your TikTok sessions, that at some point you didn't feel like you were in control anymore. That's not something that. And then you start feeling guilty, then you start feeling bad about the activity. But I don't want to make presumptions here. You tell me, Pete.


Pete
No, I think you've cottoned onto it really well there. Yes, it's when if you're doing it so much, you feel out of control, then obviously it doesn't feel a positive thing anymore. And there used to be a game called Farmville, which was very popular. People were sharing it, but some people were ending up getting up in the middle of the night to water their fields in the game, and it was impacting on their life. They felt out of control. So eventually it made you feel quite negative about the game, and now you don't hear about it so much anymore.


Ben
It'd be great to dive a bit deeper again. Nicholas. So your research highlighted that phones or devices wasn't the distraction or negative on attention, on whatever task you're doing, which is, I believe, a commonly held belief by people that actually phones and these tools and social media is distracting, preventing us from focusing. Why does this sensation exist then? Do you think it's relayed through the media? And so people hold that perception that it is distracting? Is it because things like being able to look on your phone and see how much screen time you have? And then go, well, I've spent that much time on my phone, am I not doing the activities that I should be doing? So one is why does that perception exist? Before we need research to bunk it, why does that perception exist?


Ben
The second is there a way we can maximize our attention and focus? Or ultimately, as humans, it doesn't matter what is around us. We already at the height of human productivity and output, and so we shouldn't be concerned about increasing our focus and attention.


Niklas
Good question. As for the first one, why do people perceive it? Well, why do people think their phones are distracting or social media distracting? Well, the answer is because they are. To them. I mean, you wouldn't believe something. Usually if it doesn't happen to you, it's just a matter of how accurate is your perception and how does it generalize to all of your experiences? Right? It's a bit like saying, like, eating food makes me feel bad. If you overeat, that's going to be a very salient example you're going to associate with a certain type of food, but it doesn't mean that every time you eat, you're going to feel bad afterwards. Maybe I shouldn't use the eating metaphor as much, but it's usually the one that helps to drive this point. So I think that's one point. People do often get distracted.


Niklas
It's just a matter of, like I said, well, maybe did you want to get distracted? Is the problem really that maybe your work isn't engaging enough or whatever you're doing right now? Which leads me to a second point. What can we do? Well, like you said earlier, Ben, if you have biscuits at home and you just don't buy them, we know that the best self control strategy is to just not subject yourself to temptation, just avoid it. It's really hard to resist stuff. And if you find, I'm not denying that social media can be bad for you, not denying that notifications can impair your focus, I think that they very well can. It's just a matter of the context or the demonetization that you have.


Niklas
So if you feel like you reach for your phone a lot, and if you personally feel like, I think I'm less productive than I want to be, then maybe put your phone and do not disturb mode, or even in a different room. Same for social media, the same for your games console. If you work from home and it's right next to you, maybe cover it. It sounds silly, but don't subject yourself to triggers that remind you of a better experience right now, because I'd also rather blackfire my Playstation than be working 8 hours a day. But that's just been an adult, I'm afraid.


Pete
That sounds like it'd be a really valuable idea to have a separate workspace without those things around you. Interesting.


Niklas
If only there were name for that.


Ben
It'd be great to just go a bit deeper into some of your early interest around the psychology of play. The effects of video games and games on human kind of thinking and human behaviors.


Niklas
Yeah, the psychology of play is highly fascinating, independent of video gameplay, because as humans, we do quite a lot, and play is super important for, let's call it a healthy development or for regular development, just because it gives us a safe space, especially as kids, when we're still figuring out a place in the world to try out, say, different roles, different power structures, how to engage with others. It allows me, say, if I'm 1314 years old, I just hit puberty. Am I going to be introverted or extroverted? Play allows me to explore that. Play, allows me to pretend that I'm extroverted doing play and see how the world reacts to this. And this is really an invaluable experience in human development.


Niklas
Which is also why I'm a fan of the genre of the art form of video games, because I think it extends that to all to different types of play experiences. And that's why I don't find anything inherently evil about games. I think when done well, they allow us to emulate exactly this. This development, this experience of play.


Ben
So the opportunity to fail in a safe environment, is that a key part of health gamification, then? Because if you take on a new lifestyle change or a new healthy behavior, and you try to do it for real, if you failed yourself. But if you fail within the game and the construct and the rules within that game, then you've only failed at the game. Do you think that's part of the reason why people find it easier to engage in healthy games?


Niklas
It could very well be. Especially because usually in play, there are rules and structures, right? And they should be enforced. If you see kids play, then one of them is at some point is going to go like, no, you can't do that. That's unfair. You can't fly and spit fireballs. That's just not cool. You can only get one superpower. And for the very same reason we like what's called those kind learning environments where the rules are very clearly set out, and it makes it easier to achieve our goals, whether that's better for health gamification. I mean, UD experts, I can't really speak to that, to be honest.


Pete
I think that's fine. We're very much interested in the research you've had around games in general. We can't help but try and apply it to the healthy space. Personally, I think that the world of roleplay and avatars has lots of positive benefits, not just in the world of health, but actually like inclusivity, improving diversity. There's lots of things we can do with the games. And I like this bit that you've added in about trying it out. I think that's really important. So I feel like there's more research you might have done about aspects of games that we could do with hearing about.


Niklas
Most of my research on games, and I should say our, because it was a team effort in the past two years, was about the effect of gameplay on mental health, the main focus. So I mean, obviously you always refer to the psychology of play, but ultimately what you want to know is a very simple question from a stakeholder perspective. China just banned, not just, but in the past two years, banned rose a play or restricted play to 3 hours for under 18 year olds per week, something like this. And then the question becomes, how do you get to that number and why? What are the effects? What do you observe? Why would you do that? And those are questions that we ask in the west, so to speak, as well.


Niklas
So I think that's a really important question, especially for parents, if you want to know. Should I, should I set video game time limits for my kid? And the problem here is that the research, like if you then look at the research around games, is deficient. And it's a strong word, but what I mean is that the measures are deficient, because what we usually do is we ask people, hey, how much did you play on average in the past month? And without looking at your phone, if I ask either of you, how much do you spend on average per day in the past month on your phone? I trust you'd find that really hard to answer.


Ben
Yeah, that would be a tough one to answer. I could not off the top of my head. And I know that some days I use my phone and I play on games, even my phone and my laptop, far more than others. So to come to an estimate over an entire month, yeah, it would really struggle.


Pete
It's a really interesting question. University, when I was teaching, I had a postgraduate student and we tried to calculate how much time he'd played video games. In fact, we did it for the whole class. But this particular one came to mind. We reckon he'd played video games for over 10,000 hours before he came to the university. And that was partly because he lived in an arab country. And he said, like in the hot months I just sat at home and I played all day, every day in air conditioned comfort. And it adds up.


Niklas
10,000 is incredible by year. What was that famous bogus 10,000 hours role? He must have been a pro.


Pete
He was really good at games.


Niklas
Yes. At least some mastery in there. Yeah, but so I think that example just illustrates if you ask someone how much they play and then you also ask them, hey, how do you feel these days? And that's essentially what it boils down to. You just correlate one number with the other across a lot of people and say that, okay, someone who says they play, say, 10 hours, how do you feel compared to someone who plays 11 hours? And as you can imagine, first of all, that's a very crude measure. And it was also often driven by fairly poor research practices that weren't very transparent. Right. Ideally in science, if you have this kind of data set. So you asked 1000 people how much they play and how they feel. The scientific method dictates that ideally you make that transparent.


Niklas
You share your data so that everyone else can check your results. And that didn't really happen, especially because video games are such a politicized and heated space. So our idea at the University of Oxford at our institute was that, hey, we're going to work together with video game companies so they can provide us with actual behavioral data, like whatever they record on their server. So I don't have to ask you, I can just go to the server and see like, okay, Pete said he played 2 hours, but in reality was one and a half hours on Monday. Right. And that's not because you lied to me, that's just because it's really hard to remember.


Niklas
So we combined that with what we hope was a very transparent approach because if you look at our research papers, you are able to just go online and download the data yourself and reanalyze them to see whether our points hold up. So yeah, that was the approach that we took was a combined better measures, better metrics with more transparency in this research space.


Pete
Just as a quick side note, how hard was it to get that level of data from a games company and then link it into the research?


Niklas
I mean, you got to ask my former boss here because he did most of the talking to the game companies from my experience, they were extremely keen to help their user base. All of them wanted to help us understand what is good and what is bad for their players. I'd say overall it was an extremely positive experience and nobody was holding back, so to speak, for bad pr. That said, it was a bit slower than I think even a researcher who usually operates on very wide timelines. It was slow and it took more. Quite a lot of legal work, right, for sharing these kinds of data than we would have anticipated. And I think if you look at the group and their current work, hopefully going forward, it'll be less. Well, it'll get much faster and also a bit more inclusive to other researchers.


Niklas
That's good.


Pete
I guess my follow on question is, how big a data set did you get and what sort of range of games were you working with?


Niklas
I'd say for the social science, it's fairly big data set. I mean, we're not talking like meta levels or Google levels where they do a b testing with half a million people. But in the end we ended up with usable data over time. Over. Was it six weeks? Over six weeks from around 40,000 people? 39,000 people. That's pretty decent, especially for the social science. That's a massive sample size.


Ben
And what did you find?


Niklas
That said, it really depends on the kind of question you're asking, right? Like, sometimes if you look at something obvious, ten people is all you need. Other times need 10,000 people if it's a really small difference that you're looking at.


Pete
So my other question was like, do you know how many different games there were? Or is it looking at one or two?


Niklas
Yeah. So we worked together with seven publishers, and I like to think that we covered a fairly broad range of genres. So we worked with quite a broad range, ranging from Animal Crossing, new horizons, but we also had apex legends, two, racing games, another shooter, the crew two, and I don't know if you know this game, but often referred to as spreadsheets in space Eve online.


Pete
Yes, I like that. And was there much in the way of narrative, like your type of games, narrative, strong narrative ones?


Niklas
Not yet. Just because you got to be in this kind of range, you also have to be a bit pragmatic. Right. You need to tap into player base, because we're just inviting them via email to contribute to research. So ideally you want to tap a fairly large user base. Response rates usually for this kind of stuff, if you send someone a cold email, are around like half a percent to 2% somewhere there. Those narrative games or the indie games, usually their player bases aren't huge, and also their play, if you want to look at how you play over six weeks, influences your mental health over six weeks, then you need to be playing for six weeks. And I don't know about you, but even like the AA narrative games, I think I finished the last of us, too, in less than two weeks.


Niklas
So I wouldn't have been suitable for this research just on those pragmatic crones.


Pete
That's a really good point. I like that. So we've got a nice big data set. We've got quite a wide range of games. What did you discover?


Niklas
Nothing. We measured two types of mental health. Mental health is quite a broad space, right. You can go from anything that's considered pathology, depression, any. Any kinds of pathologies that need a diagnosis to what we call the positive side of mental health. So how you feel in general life. So we measured two aspects of that non pathologic side of well being. One was the general emotions that you experienced over the past two weeks, which is often referred to as effective well being, just effect. How do you feel? And the other one was more like a rational evaluative component. So how, setting your feelings aside, how would you say life is going? Can you evaluate how your life's been going the past two weeks? So we measured those two things, feelings and thoughts, so to speak, of your life.


Niklas
And then we wanted to see, okay, because we measured it, we measured gameplay over six weeks over time. Does how you felt in the past two weeks or how much you played in the past two weeks, does that influence how you feel two weeks later? Right. Which would be in line with an argument of saying, video games have a large effect on my mental health. And the results were those effects, those correlations over time were extremely small. Usually you put this into a context of like, okay, so how much more would someone have to play than they typically play to really feel a difference? And the answer was sometimes more than there were hours in a day. Right. Okay, so just for you to feel a difference, you would need to pay ten more hours daily than you already do, on average.


Niklas
So that just puts into perspective how small those differences were.


Pete
What do you think this means in terms of this correlation? And with video games and mental health, does it mean there's, like, one end of the scale, are they going to be a useful tool for mental health, or is it just carry on play? It's just not harmful depending on how you're doing it.


Niklas
I think that the big takeaway, the premise already of doing this research I've seen, like, what's safe to play, right, to me is a bit skewed, because I would say if you have a hobby and you engage in that hobby, to me it's really bizarre to then ask, how harmful is that to you? Unless your hobies is something that we know is bad for your health, right? Your hobby is going drink in a pub every day, then maybe it's going to be bad for you in the long run. So that's one thing, the premise already of the question. Sometimes I feel like, well, it shouldn't be like, if anything, it shouldn't be surprising that. That playing doesn't have a positive impact, right? Because it seems to be something that people enjoy. But there come obviously, a couple of limitations here.


Niklas
One is, two weeks is a long time, right, to ask someone, hey, how have you felt over the past two weeks? And then see how much you've played over the past two weeks? Maybe you just missed the effect. Maybe it's a short term thing, right? Maybe you play for an hour and that elevates your mood, and then you go back, you go to sleep, whatever, and next day you wake up. So if I ask you about your past two weeks, we're just missing the effect, or we're missing the effect of playing video games. Does that make sense?


Pete
It does make a lot of sense. In fact, I feel like a better question would have been to you. So how does your research compare to what had been out there before? Because you said about the quality of it. Are there some differences based on what you've seen to what had been published before?


Niklas
Without tooting our own horn here, I'd say one is obviously quality of measures. We were the first ones to really get such a high quality data set of behavioral data from industry partners. That's something that hadn't been done before. And the longitudinal aspect, so usually do quite. You see quite a lot of cross sectional stuff where you say, like, hey, how much do you play and how do you feel right now? And that's it. And we followed players over three time points. Those kinds of designs usually allow for a more precise or more accurate measurement and for a stronger claim to causality to say, like, games actually cause that. Not a perfect claim, mind you, but at least a stronger one.


Pete
Okay, and my final question, before I get you to hand back to Ben, would be, what future research do you think would be really useful in this space?


Niklas
I can speak to what my former group is doing, or my former colleagues are doing, which is to look at a bit more on the short term of things, right? Because right now we cover such a wide spectrum of two weeks. The next step, and what I would like to see probably at some point come out, is how does playing right now, playing for ten minutes, make you feel in the next ten minutes? Basically just tighten a time frame and see whether we can see short term effects of gameplay on mental health. Or maybe you should just call it your mood for now, because I think there's a spectrum from micro effects to you fail to beat the boss, you feel a bit bad. You finally beat the boss, you feel a bit good, and maybe that lasts for half an hour.


Niklas
You beat a boss every day for half a year. Maybe in the long run that raises your overall state slightly positively because you feel competent in everyday life. But those are extremely complex questions in terms of how do those short term effects translate to your life overall in the long run. But yeah, I think there's another ten years of research right there that I'm not going to be part of. Unfortunately.


Pete
No. I think that's a really good analysis of what's needed, especially considering how people think. We think very short term or long term. So we need both sets of data.


Ben
Nicholas, it'd be great to know. Any tips, wisdoms or thoughts for people designing health games for people trying to work in health gamification. What have you learned over your research that might be really valuable for people?


Niklas
I usually take the scientists out here where I say that's too applied, but it's gone to my head. I'd say a couple of things here. One is, don't use those kinds of dark patterns where you make people feel like they're losing out in social situations. I think that it really motivates people to be part of a group. But going back to your farm, build example from earlier. Don't use this fear of missing out to make people feel like not them in control anymore. Ultimately, I think you want to give as much autonomy to the player as possible. Don't be too generous, but also not too rigid with your rewards.


Niklas
Like try to hit that sweet spot of not doing like the mobile game thing where you get a million coins if you even turn on your phone, but also dark souls where it takes you half a day to beat a boss, unless that's your thing. But I'm just saying there's a sweet spot between those two. Are those two enough? I feel like everything else I would be talking out of my zone of expertise.


Ben
That's great, Nicholas. It's been fantastic having you on the show today to talk about the impact of phones, social media and games on mental health, the relationship between digital devices in the modern world, focus and attention, and the psychology and play. Thank you very much for your time today. It's been great to have you on.


Pete
Thanks so much, Nicholas. It's been great.


Niklas
Yeah. Thanks so much for inviting me. This has been fun.

About the author 

Pete Baikins

Pete Baikins is an international authority on gamification, a lifelong gamer, successful entrepreneur and a lecturer. As CEO of Gamification+ Ltd he mentors and trains companies world-wide on the use of gamification to solve business challenges. Gamification+ won the Board of Trade Award from the UK's Department of International Trade in January 2019.

Pete is co-host of the health gamification podcast Health Points and is also Chair of Gamification Europe, the annual conference for Gamification practitioners.

Pete is an Honorary Ambassador for GamFed (International Gamification Confederation), having previously been the Chair from 2014 to February 2019, whose aim is to spread best practices within and support the gamification industry.

After 15 years as a Lecturer on gamification and entrepreneurship at the University of Brighton he now guest lectures on Gamification at King’s College London and at ESCP Europe at post-graduate and under-graduate levels.

Over the past 20 years Pete has built and sold two businesses. One was in security software and the more recent one was a telecoms and internet connectivity business. He is also an Ambassador for Brighton & Hove Chamber of Commerce in the UK.

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