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Why are regular fantasy football players more likely to have poor mental health?

As new research finds that people who spend the most time engaged in fantasy football are more likely to have worse mental health, Olivia Petter examines the psychological impacts of the online game

Thursday 06 January 2022 00:01
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It’s no secret that spending hours online – whether that be on social media or a Playstation – isn’t exactly the best thing for one’s mental health.

Now, however, new research has found that one particular online activity could be worse than others.

Fantasy football is a game involving a group of people who assemble a fictional team of actual football players based on how they perform in real life.

Once teams are confirmed, participants compete against one another using a points-based system.

It’s hugely popular among football fans and is usually done at the start of the season in August, though there are many variations.

This is thought to be the first time a study has examined how fantasy football affects our mental wellbeing.

The research, published in the journal Human Behaviour and Emerging Technologies, included data from almost 2,000 fantasy football players, who play the game virtually across various online platforms.

Participants had an average age of 33 and were from 96 nationalities; the majority of them were male.

Conducted via a questionnaire, the study found that most fantasy football players do not experience poor mental health.

However, it also suggested that there was a link between poor mental health and players who engaged the most in the game.

The high level of engagement used in the study was classified using several measures: those who played six or more leagues concurrently, those who played for more than 45 minutes a day, spent time researching for the game for more than an hour a day, or spent more than two hours a day thinking about it.

One in four participants overall reported mild low mood - with symptoms including sadness, anger, frustration, tiredness, and low self-esteem - when either playing, researching, or thinking about fantasy football.

Meanwhile, this rose to 44 per cent among players who had the highest engagement with the game.

Mild anxiety was found to also rise from affecting one-fifth of participants to 34 per cent among players who spent the most time engaged in the game, while disruption to players’ lives more than doubled, going from 14 per cent to 37 per cent.

The researchers also found that players who had spent longer periods of time engaged in fantasy football had better mental health than those who played for shorter periods, leading them to speculate that the longer you play for, the better you become at managing your mental health accordingly.

Dr Luke Wilkins, an expert in sport and exercise psychology at Nottingham Trent University’s School of Science and Technology, said: “While it’s positive that only a minority report mental health issues in relation to their fantasy football, it is concerning that higher levels of engagement appear to increase the likelihood of experiencing issues with mood and anxiety and seem to be having a negative impact on players’ lives.

“Fantasy football is unwinnable for the vast majority that play and it is possible that the more a person is invested the more negatively impacted they will be when they ‘lose’.

“Our study highlights the general positives that the game can bring, but also warns of the potential negatives, and provides justification for the idea that more should be done to monitor the amount of time being dedicated to playing fantasy football.”

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