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New #BeeWell research: Video gaming and physical activity boosts adolescent wellbeing

New research using #BeeWell data explores patterns of participation in arts, culture, and entertainment (PACE) among adolescents in Greater Manchester, and investigates the relation between patterns of participation and later wellbeing. The full study can be found here. This blog explores associations between patterns of PACE and later wellbeing.

Overview of study

We used an advanced statistical method called latent class analysis (LCA) to 1) identify patterns of PACE among young people in Greater Manchester; 2) establish associations between socio-demographic characteristics and PACE group membership; and, 3) investigate whether PACE group membership predicts later (T2) mental wellbeing.

LCA allows us to identify patterns of PACE, based on the amount of time young people reported spending doing each activity. It does this by estimating the probability of each adolescent in the dataset belonging to each class that emerges, by grouping individuals who share similar response patterns. This allows us to make inferences about how different groups of young people spend their free time, based on the probability of endorsing a particular PACE item in a given group. LCA also allows us to identify socio-demographic characteristics of the young people in any one group compared to another, and we are also able to compare later wellbeing scores in each of the identified groups.

Four patterns of PACE were identified, and there were sociodemographic inequalities in engagement, with some groups being more likely to take part in different PACE items than others. These four groups were: 1) the Dynamic Doers, who had high probabilities of taking part in a wide range of activities; 2) the Mind and Body Crew, who were likely to spend their time reading for enjoyment, participating in arts and crafts or other creative hobbies, doing exercise or other physical activities, and playing video games; 3) the Game and Gain Squad, who were highly likely to play sports, do exercise or other physical activities, and play video games; and 4) the Activity Free Association, who were unlikely to take part in any PACE activities.

Although this blog focuses on patterns of PACE and mental wellbeing, an overview of the full study findings can be found in an earlier #BeeWell evidence briefing here.

PACE and wellbeing, and the ‘active ingredient’ of videogaming

Our PACE indicators included the amount of time young people spent playing video games and playing sports or doing exercise. One of the classes that was identified (called the Game and Gain Squad) was characterised by high levels of these two PACE items, and not much else. Members of the Game and Gain squad had similar levels of mental wellbeing a year later to that of members of the Dynamic Doers group (characterised by high probabilities of taking part in a wide range of activities, and the highest mental wellbeing scores one year later). Average mental wellbeing scores in the Game and Gain Squad and Dynamic Doers groups were higher than average mental wellbeing scores in the other two groups that were identified –  the Mind and Body Crew (spend their time reading for enjoyment, participating in arts and crafts or other creative hobbies, doing exercise or other physical activities, and playing video games) and the Activity Free Adolescents (unlikely to take part in any PACE activities, and had the lowest mental wellbeing scores one year later).

These findings regarding PACE activity and mental wellbeing a year later have some important implications. First, the highest wellbeing scores were observed among the Dynamic Doers class. This supports previous claims that participating in a wide range of activities is important for wellbeing, rather than simply the amount of time spent engaging in these activities. It is therefore important to ensure that a full range of activities can be made appealing and accessible to all young people.

Second, the fact that average wellbeing scores between the Dynamic Doers and the Game and Gain squad did not differ suggests that the activities characteristic of Game and Gain squad membership (playing video games and sports/exercise) may be of particular benefit for wellbeing, as probabilities of engaging in these activities was high among both groups. The obvious link here is physical activity, which is thought to increase mental wellbeing, for example through alleviating feelings of stress and anxiety or decreasing periods of inactivity. However, the Mind and Body Crew had similar probabilities of engaging in physical activity as the Game and Gain Squad and Dynamic Doers, yet the average wellbeing of those in the Mind and Body Crew was significantly lower than these other two classes.

This therefore leaves playing videogames as a strong candidate for benefitting wellbeing, as this was a distinguishing feature between members of the Game and Gain Squad/ Dynamic Doers, and the Mind and Body Crew. Playing videogames may be important for wellbeing in several ways: for example, it may provide an outlet for young people to release feelings of frustration and aggression.

An important feature of our analyses is that the data on PACE engagement was collected between September and December 2021, in the immediate aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic. Periods of lockdown, which resulted in the closure of all non-essential businesses and schools, and stay at home orders, meant that other PACE activities (such as going to the theatre/cinema, attending museums, watching live sports, and attending religious services or youth clubs) may therefore have resulted in higher levels of home-based activities, such as videogames. There is a social nature to videogames, for example, playing against, and communicating with, others over the internet. It is possible that playing videogames during periods of COVID-19 restrictions and in the immediate aftermath (which has been characterised by a slow return to normality) provided young people with a means of socialising and maintaining connections with their peers, despite not being able to attend school or engage in in-person social activities.  This is a further reason why playing videogames may be a particular active ingredient for mental wellbeing in our sample. Spending lots of time playing videogames has historically been negatively stereotyped, for example, with suggestions that playing violent videogames makes young people more violent. However, our findings suggest that more time spent video gaming may in fact be time well spent.

Some next steps

There is evidence from the #BeeWell data that engagement in some PACE activities is declining over time. Research with adults suggests that engagement in a variety of PACE items is lower among adults, which is perhaps not surprising due to decreases in available leisure time. It has also been suggested that sustained PACE is necessary for continued effects on wellbeing. Given the evidence that PACE engagement is decreasing over time in #BeeWell in Greater Manchester as these young people get older, it will be interesting to investigate whether class membership changes over time, and whether different effects on wellbeing emerge as a result. As more #BeeWell data becomes available, this is something that we will be able to investigate.