Exploring the social dynamics of teen gaming

Boston Children's Digital Wellness Lab
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Digital gaming has quickly become one of the most popular forms of screen media used by teenagers, and online games in particular have created new spaces for young people to socialize with their friends and peers.

In our most recent Pulse Survey, Digital Gaming and Social Interaction, we asked a nationwide sample of over 1,400 adolescents (ages 13-17) about the different scenarios and contexts involved in their social video game play.

Our questions were centered around:

  1. What are the social contexts of gaming for teenagers?
  2. How do teenagers communicate in the context of gaming?
  3. How do teenagers generally experience different types of video game play?
  4. What are the relationships between different types of gaming, the nature of these gaming experiences, and adolescents’ social functioning?
  5. For all of the above, what differences exist by gender (i.e. boys vs girls)?

Why this approach?

In this study, we aimed to further understand the social aspects of digital gaming by investigating how and where interactions occur, the online platforms that support them, and whether they are related to the social wellbeing of both boys and girls. In particular, this report focuses on how boys and girls may have different experiences with gaming, especially when it comes to relationships and social connection. These findings can help generate guidelines and recommendations that strive to maximize the social benefits of video game play, recognizing the need for different strategies based on characteristics like gender.

Key takeaways.

General gaming behavior.

What we asked.

We asked teenagers what age they started gaming, their average daily gaming time, and how often they engage in different types of play.

What we learned.

We learned that nearly three-quarters (73%) of participants started gaming between 5 to 10 years old. The overwhelming majority (93%) of teenagers in our sample said they played video games at least once in the past month, and they reported playing for about an hour longer on average during non-school days than on days they are in school. Among these respondents, single-player gaming was most common and significantly more frequent than any other type of play. Social gaming was also quite common, with the majority of teenagers reporting two-player gaming with a friend/family member during a typical week, followed closely by playing with a stranger.

Social Interactions During Gaming.

What We Asked.

We asked who teens play games with and if/how they communicate when gaming.

What we learned.

Our findings show that gaming is not only a form of entertainment but also a way to foster and maintain social interactions. From extended conversations to strategic use of quick messages, emojis, and in-game character actions for brief exchanges, teenagers were varied and flexible in how they connected while gaming. We also learned that while in-game chat was still the most commonly-used platform for communication during play, phone calls and other chat platforms (e.g., Discord, Slack, WhatsApp) were also popular.

*Frequently = often or almost always

Social Gaming Experiences.

What We Asked.

We asked participants about their experiences gaming with others.

What we learned.

Overall, a substantial majority of teens reported positive experiences when gaming with others, regardless of their gender or the type of play. For every type of gameplay, positive experiences outnumbered negative ones, with no specific type being rated by a majority of respondents as “unsafe”, “toxic” or “negative”.

The extent to which gameplay was seen as competitive vs. collaborative or individual vs. social did vary by the type of play and by gender. When playing with people they already knew, teens rated their experiences as more collaborative and social, especially in multiplayer gaming with friends and family. In contrast, gaming with strangers was viewed as more competitive and individual. This suggests that familiarity between players encourages collaboration, whereas anonymity or unfamiliarity might encourage competition.

Gender Differences in Social Gaming.

What We Investigated.

We looked at the differences in responses between boys and girls (the only two gender categories with enough participants for meaningful statistical comparisons).

What we learned.

Boys appeared to play more on non-portable devices like gaming consoles, whereas girls seemed to gravitate towards portable devices like smartphones. Boys also reported playing online with others significantly more often than girls did, regardless of the type of play.

While boys seemed more inclined to engage socially with others across all play settings, girls were more likely to include family members in their gaming sessions. A higher percentage of boys reported frequently communicating with others when gaming online, suggesting a more active use of gaming as a means for social interaction. We also saw that girls are more likely to view gaming sessions as collaborative, especially with friends and family, highlighting a possible preference for cooperative play. Boys, on the other hand, often perceive these sessions as more competitive, suggesting varying motivations and expectations from gaming based on gender.

Gaming and loneliness.

What we asked.

We asked teenagers several questions about their social functioning and wellbeing, with a particular emphasis on feelings of loneliness.

What we learned.

Our analysis indicated some correlation across all types of play with perceived loneliness, with participants who reported playing video games more frequently more likely to report higher levels of loneliness. Surprisingly, local (in-person) multiplayer gaming showed the strongest correlation with loneliness. These associations between all types of gaming and perceived loneliness suggest that while gaming is a social activity, it might not fully compensate for the need for other in-person interactions and/or could reflect feelings of isolation among certain adolescents.

Our findings suggested that the association between various types of gaming and perceived loneliness is more pronounced among boys, particularly for local multiplayer gaming (i.e. playing with/against others in the same room). For girls, the correlations between gaming and loneliness are generally weaker and follow a different pattern, with solo play the most strongly correlated with loneliness.

(Note: These findings do not necessarily mean that gaming is directly causing loneliness. More research on this topic is required.)

In conclusion.

Our research shows that gaming transcends mere entertainment, evolving into a social hub for a large majority of teenagers. Over three-quarters report engaging in online play with friends and family, which can help with fostering connections and building camaraderie. Interestingly, our findings highlight a difference in how boys and girls approach and experience this social aspect. Boys tend to gravitate towards online multiplayer experiences, enjoying competition with both friends and strangers. In contrast, girls often favor a more collaborative approach, prioritizing gaming sessions with close friends and family.

However, an important implication from these findings is the importance of balance between digital and in-person social interactions and relationships. While the vast majority of teens report positive experiences when gaming with others, our findings revealed a correlation between frequent gaming and feelings of loneliness. This highlights the importance of ensuring that gaming (like other forms of media use) complements, rather than replaces, face-to-face interactions. In other words, while gaming can be a powerful social tool, it’s crucial for young people to maintain a healthy balance of social experiences and meaningful connections both online and offline.

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