Pokémon Go May Boost Mental and Physical Health

Megan Brooks

May 07, 2018

NEW YORK — Playing Pokémon Go is associated with an increase in physical activity and social behavior and an improved sense of well-being, highlighting its potential as a behavioral activation and exposure tool for the treatment of mental health problems in adolescents and young adults, report researchers from Canada.

"This type of gaming technology should be harnessed as a tool for engagement in a population which is historically difficult to engage in behavioral treatments for depression and anxiety disorders," said Michael Van Ameringen, MD, professor, Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Neurosciences, McMaster University, Hamilton, Ontario, Canada.

He presented the study at a press briefing here at the American Psychiatric Association (APA) annual meeting.

Walking, Talking, and Feeling Well

Pokémon Go was launched in early 2016 and soon became a phenomenon, particularly among young people. The game is played using a Smartphone application. Users have to walk outdoors to "catch" Pokémon using Global Positioning System data and cameras on their smartphones. The players can also get Pokémon eggs, which they can then hatch only if they walk for several kilometers. The game involves both physical activity and social, face-to-face interactions with other players.

Although the game was not designed to be a mental health app, early anecdotal reports indicate that it may provide mental health benefits.

To investigate further, Van Ameringen and colleagues surveyed 157 people who had been playing Pokémon Go for an average of 13 weeks at an average of 7 hours per week. The mean age of the participants was 20 years, 57% were white, 78% were women, 89% were single, and 62% were full-time students.

After playing Pokémon Go, 44% reported that they had engaged in more physical activity; 13% said they had lost weight (about 5.3 lb); 25% reported an improved sense of well-being; and 23% reported a change in social behavior.

Among those who reported changes in social behavior, 85% said that they had spoken more to unfamiliar people, 53% reported being more comfortable speaking to unfamiliar people, 77% spent more time with friends, and 41% made new real-life friends (not virtual friends) since playing the game.

Compared to participants who played fewer than 10 hours per week, those who played for longer periods were more apt to report sleeping less and spending less time at work. They also reported an increase in physical activity and an improved sense of well-being.

In an interview with Medscape Medical News, Van Ameringen noted that one the biggest difficulties with mobile mental health apps is that people download the app, look at it once or twice, and then stop using it.

"Unless the clinician has some involvement with the app, people don't sustain their involvement with it. But people who play Pokémon Go are typically really engaged with it, and that's without a therapist. So that's what some of the apps are missing. They don't sustain that user engagement," he said.

A Perfect Fit

Briefing moderator Ranna Parekh, MD, MPH, deputy medical director and director of diversity and health equity for the APA, said this research "fits in perfectly with the theme of this year's annual meeting, which is Building Well-Being Through Innovation. I will never think about Pokémon Go in the same way.

I will never think about Pokémon Go in the same way. Dr Ranna Parekh

"Technology is transforming health, including mental health care, and there are thousands of apps that claim to assist with mental or behavioral health," said Parekh. She suggested that clinicians check out APA's online mobile apps evaluation tool "to learn some questions that we encourage clinicians to ask before recommending any app to patients.

"We also need more research to see what impact technology and specific apps are having on mental health. While Pokémon Go is not specifically designed to help with mental health, it has been found to influence players' mental health overall," said Parekh.

The study had no commercial funding. Dr Ameringen and Dr Parekh have disclosed no relevant financial relationships.

American Psychiatric Association (APA) 2018. Poster P5-154, presented May 6, 2018.

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