Millions of young people play multi-player video games, such as Fortnite, League of Legends, and Call of Duty. If you’re not part of a gaming community yourself, you may have only heard the negatives of video games. Media often portrays gamers as either lazy or violent. Video gaming has been recognized as potentially addicting. On the other hand, gaming can provide players with social and leadership skills. It often provides a virtual community, especially for those who might not otherwise have peer contact.
Multi-player games involve groups of players forming teams to battle others. They often wear headsets and communicate with each other throughout the game, talking strategy or just having day-to-day conversation. Not being a gamer myself, I was shocked to learn that these environments can quickly become toxic. It’s fairly common in multi-player games for gamers to cyberbully each other, even going so far as to tell players to kill themselves when they make a mistake.
To learn more, I researched one of the top League of Legends gamers. This gamer has millions of followers watching him play. He has previously been banned from platforms for belittling and telling other players to commit suicide. If this behavior is going on at the top of the gaming world, it may be happening in any gaming community. Twitch, a popular gaming platform, has provided mental health resources for players on their website and from what I read, they will ban players for threatening others; however, I have to wonder whether gaming sites are catching the majority of players who make such threats.
Obviously, I am concerned for my tween, teen, and young adult patients who may be experiencing these suicide-related threats and cyberbullying. When I searched the literature on this topic, I came up with... nada. While there is some great research on gaming in general, I was unable to find anything published specifically on this problem of suicide-related bullying.
We need to keep gamers safe. They have a right to play in an environment that is respectful and enjoyable. I offer these recommendations for both parents and gamers based on available research, and I welcome commentary from the gaming community:
Note to parents: My recommendation is not necessarily to ban video games. Some teens and tweens find have closer connections with the gaming community than peers at school or in their neighborhood. Any form of social support is a plus, as long as it’s not harmful.
Limit screen time. The American Academy of Pediatricians recommends limiting screen time for children and teens, although it does not specify the optimal number of hours. Your family’s screen time plan will be based on your values and needs. Spending less time gaming could help prevent harm, if the gaming environment is toxic and causing your teen distress.
Monitor gaming activity. Find out more about the games your kids are playing. Ask your teen if they have ever experienced cyberbullying while gaming. If so, have an honest, non-judgmental conversation about how to prevent harm from gaming. Strategies such as muting chats within the game could be helpful.
Ask about suicidal thoughts. Asking will not create thoughts that do not already exist. Have an open discussion about whether your teen has ever been told to kill themselves while gaming and how that made them feel. If your teen is experiencing suicidal thoughts, follow recommendations on how to talk to them and seek help from a mental health professional.
Take a break. If gaming is making you more upset than happy/entertained, take some time away from it or try a new game.
Remember the Golden Rule. It’s not okay for someone to bully you or tell you to kill yourself. And, of course, you should not bully someone else. You don’t know what they might be going through that could make your words hurt more than you intended.
Mute them. If your game has an option to turn off chats from other players, try that. Not seeing others’ comments may help you play in peace.
Talk back to the bullies. Bullies say mean things to try to get a reaction out of you, such as getting upset or crying. If you don’t react the way they expect, they may stop. People have found success talking back to bullies by “agreeing” with them. For example, if someone criticizes your gaming skills, you could respond, “You’re right. I am so terrible at this game. I should just never play again.” This tactic should only be used for milder bullying, not if someone is calling you demeaning names or telling you to kill yourself.
Report them. If someone is telling you to kill yourself or calling you offense names, report them! There’s no reason for you and others to have a bad experience because of this person.
Tell someone about your suicidal thoughts. If you are having suicidal thoughts from gaming (or anything else), tell someone you trust and who can help. You can call a suicide hotline (1-800-273-8255) and, if the thoughts continue, it may be helpful to work with a mental health professional, such as a therapist, counselor, or psychiatrist.
Note: This blog post was originally published on PsychBytes in 2020.