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Do You Suffer from Phone Game Shame?

How bad are phone games for you?

Key points

  • It's not uncommon to feel shame about playing games on our phones.
  • We often feel like we're wasting time when we're playing games.
  • Even mindless games can serve a purpose.
  • As long as you're playing in moderation, it might be worth reevaluating your thinking about game-playing.

“I’m so embarrassed,” Eliza* told me, “I’ve got a new baby, I have to go back to work soon, and I’ve got so much to do in the house before my maternity leave is over. I should be spending every spare minute with my baby. I don’t have any business playing Bubble Shooter (a currently popular phone game). I’m so ashamed, I hide it from my husband.”

Do you worry that you play these games too much?

While the problem of overuse of these games is endemic in our world today, there's a question of just how much is too much. My PT colleague Jason N. Linder tells us that using your phone to play games can trigger in your brain the release of dopamine, the chemical that underlies numerous addictions, which is why it has been called the “pleasure chemical.”

In an article in The Guardian, Catherine Price, author of How to Break Up With Your Phone, recounts a story eerily similar to Eliza’s. Price tells us, “Our most time-sucking apps are deliberately designed to hook us—because that’s how their creators make money.”

The article and linked five-week newsletter about how to break a phone game habit became the Guardian’s "fastest growing email ever," according Sarah Scire, Deputy Editor of the Nieman Lab of Harvard University.

Why is there often a sense of shame associated with phone game playing?

Eliza was mortified when her husband “caught” her gently rocking their baby in her arms while simultaneously playing another popular game that many players have trouble putting down. When I asked her what felt so shameful, she said, “I’m an intelligent woman. I’m trying to be a good mom to my baby. I should be focused on her when she’s awake and focused on other real-life things when she’s sleeping. But I feel so tense all the time, and when I play these games, my tension has a purpose. When I’m done, I feel like I’ve accomplished something. I’m embarrassed to say this, but I have a weird sense of being calmer. But then I worry that I’m addicted. I mean, here I am feeling relaxed, like I’ve had a dose of something calming.”

Like Eliza, you might be among the large number of phone game players who find themselves drawn into playing games on their phones for far more time than they think is healthy. There’s a reason for this attractionresearch shows that phone games, like video games, are set up with rewards and teasers that keep you coming back for more and make it very hard to stop, even at the end of a level or a game.

In moderation, playing games on your phone can have mental health benefits

Just because you are playing these games doesn’t mean you’re doing something bad for your mental health. In fact, some research shows that game-playing in moderation can be good for you, in that it stimulates your brain and improves cognitive functioning. It also can help distract you from difficult, distressing, and stressful moments in your life and leave you feeling more relaxed.

But whether you’re playing something that is supposed to stimulate or enhance your brain function, like Wordle or the game Elevate, for instance, or something just for fun, that very sense of relaxation that follows can be one of the causes of feelings of shame. We live in a world that values goal-driven, productive behavior. We’ve been conditioned to believe that spending a few hours “doing nothing” is unproductive at best and self-indulgent or self-destructive at worst. That’s a major reason that we feel bad about ourselves when someone catches us playing Monopoly Go! or Royal Match. Even if the game is educational, like Duolingo, it is most likely structured to keep you playing far longer than you intended, and it can be embarrassing to discover just how long you have been on the site “wasting time.”

Consider this: research has also shown that what we frequently call “wasting time”—that is, not doing anything productive or goal-directed—has a number of mental and physical health benefits. We tend to be more productive and more creative when we take time off from our focused, goal-oriented activities. Obviously, if you are a mom or dad responsible for your child’s development, you need to pay attention, especially when your job includes watching and supervising their activities. But years ago, I was told by the director of a private school in NYC that children also need time to disengage, to stop focusing, and to just “waste time.” She learned this lesson from an actor and writer who told her that some of his best ideas came to him when he was bored. Sometimes, the best parenting happens when spending time with a child doing something “meaningless”—playing a dumb game, watching a silly show, or simply hanging out without relying on a structured activity.

Re-evaluating can change how you feel about yourself and how you present yourself to others.

Obviously, wasting too much time is not good for anyone. But next time you’re feeling ashamed of the time you spent playing a game on your phone, ask yourself if it was, in fact, wasted time? Or was it actually a refresher, a good respite that made you better able to meet the tension and demands of your life?


*names and identifying info changed to protect privacy

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