Introduction: Video games are becoming a part of everyday life; 65% of Americans report playing some form of video game daily. Many public health professionals are concerned with mental health side effects, citing greater risk for depressive symptoms and reduced real life social involvement. However, many games provide features for players to extend real life relationships and make new online friendships. The purpose of this study was to use social network analysis to investigate the relationship between social connections and mental health among a network of gamers.
Methods: An online gaming site, with a clear member list, was used to perform whole network analysis. Site members were asked to report demographics, depressive symptoms (PHQ-9), and social support from “in-real-life” (IRL) and online friends by online survey. Members also nominated members of the online community with whom they spoke to about important life matters. Exponential random graph modeling was used to determine parameters associated with tie presence between members. Multi-level and network autocorrelation modeling were used to determine variance in PHQ-9 scores. Spatial autocorrelation was used to determine depressive symptoms and support clustering throughout the network.
Results: Members (n=37) were significantly more likely to speak to other members about important life matters if they reported more depressive symptoms, more online hours, and less IRL support. Multilevel models accounted for 31%-50% of the variance exhibited in PHQ-9 scores. IRL support was a significant negative factor, while number of online connections was a significant positive factor. Depressive symptoms and support were not significantly spatially autocorrelated; neither was concentrated in a certain area or clustered within the network.
Conclusions: Members may be filling an IRL social support deficit with friends they have met online. Additionally, members who reported more depressive symptoms may be seeking help from informal online connections through online gaming.