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Children: Gaming

Volume 797: debated on Thursday 23 May 2019


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what plans they have to sponsor research into the benefits of gaming for children’s mental health and wellbeing.

My Lords, the department funds research through the National Institute for Health Research. The NIHR spend on mental health research for 2017-18 was £74.8 million, the highest ever. The NIHR welcomes funding applications for research into any aspect of human health. Existing research has shown some positive impacts of gaming—such as cognitive, emotional, motivational and social benefits—but has also shown that a small number of young people’s gaming can become harmful.

My Lords, I am grateful for that reply. Yes, gaming can be harmful, and this Question is about gaming, not gambling. There is increasing evidence that gaming can help children in a whole variety of ways, particularly with mental health problems, yet little research is being done and the Minister did not really give a great list of what is happening with that. I wonder whether she could try to give more information about the scale of it and see whether we can try to persuade the internet companies to get more involved and to use their funding to start producing games of goodness and benefit to children rather than negative ones. She reported recently that there had been a summit at which the Secretary of State spoke to the internet companies. I wonder whether she will look into the possibility that, when the next meeting takes place with him or his colleagues, this item will be on the agenda and those companies will be encouraged to participate jointly in providing games of good to the country.

I thank the noble Lord for his question. He is absolutely right that gaming can have positive effects; there are some areas in which the UK Government are funding research into this. In partnership with industry, NHS England is funding work to develop and test how immersive gaming technology can be used to increase therapy adherence and tackle children’s anxiety. He is absolutely right that, following the Secretary of State’s social media summit, a partnership between industry and the Samaritans was formed. I shall certainly raise his proposal with the Secretary of State. The NIHR is also funding research to develop and evaluate therapy that uses virtual reality technology to treat patients with psychosis. The noble Lord is absolutely right that more can and should be done in this area, and I shall take that point away with me.

Does my noble friend not agree with me, though, that we should deal with this extremely carefully? I am aware of a number of cases in which children have become obsessed with gaming. In desperation, parents have been in touch with their representatives and medical advisers to try to deal with the effect of the psychosis that results from the obsession with gaming among quite a lot of young people. Can she therefore make sure that, however she looks at the positive effects in certain cases, she also fully recognises the dangers of an open approach to this?

I thank my noble friend for his question. Hundreds of millions of people globally play videogames, and for the majority it is a positive recreational activity. He is right, however, that there is some evidence of a moderate correlation between gaming and depression and anxiety symptoms in young adults, and evidence that exposure to violent gaming can have an impact on sleep and mood. However, that is dependent on the nature and duration of gaming. We also support the WHO’s classification, which identifies addiction within the classification of diseases. The CMO said in her evidence review, however, that there is insufficient evidence to support a specific evidence-based guideline on screen time. That is why we support more applications to the NIHR for research so that we can have a better understanding of the impact of gaming on young people. We would encourage anyone who is concerned to contact their GP.

My Lords, as the noble Lord, Lord Brooke, said, this is about gaming, not gambling. Although some games can indeed be beneficial, some of them have covert elements of gambling in them such as loop boxes. Will the Minister assure the House that the PSHE curriculum in schools will cover elements of gambling, including those hidden in otherwise innocuous activities such as gaming? How do parents find out which are beneficial and which are the harmful ones?

My Lords, the noble Baroness is absolutely right, as ever, on this point. There is a challenge for parents and young people to be more educated and more critically engaged with online harms. The Online Harms White Paper is out for consultation until 1 July and I encourage all Members of this House to engage with that consultation. It is about setting clear responsibilities for tech companies to keep UK citizens safe but also about thinking about how teachers, parents and young people can get the best out of their engagement with the internet. To encourage the noble Baroness, our children and young people’s mental health Green Paper addresses these issues and we shall make sure that we drive that agenda forward.

My Lords, there has been much conversation already about research into gaming addiction among young people. My right reverend friend the Bishop of St Albans raised the issue of a mandatory pause function following calls from healthcare providers. As that was raised again in conversation and discussion around the Online Harms White Paper, will the Minister confirm that the Government are assessing the value of this function?

I thank the right reverend Prelate for his question. He is absolutely right that it is one of the issues that will be considered with the Online Harms White Paper. I encourage him and his colleagues to engage with the consultation. It is a very important part of that consultation and something we should consider very carefully.

My Lords, will the Government carefully consider encouraging NHS innovation to invest, with other independent companies, in developing games to promote healthy lifestyles in children? In particular, there could be a game that would attract children who are prone to obesity associated with mental health problems to get them engaged in health promotion programmes and associated healthy activities—innovative action research rather than pure research.

The noble Baroness is absolutely right on that point. Emerging augmented reality and VR markets should be encouraged to offer these opportunities. Interesting evidence emerged from the AR game “Pokémon Go”, which encouraged many young people to go out walking and exploring, for example, and we have programmes that are investing in promoting exactly that kind of innovation. We also have the video games tax relief, which has benefited projects such as Eye Gaze Games, a series of games for children with mobility problems. We would like to continue investing in such programmes, which give the particular benefits that the Government would like encourage.