Is Wordle ruining our mental health?

New York Times Wordle (Copyright 2022 The Associated Press. All rights reserved)
New York Times Wordle (Copyright 2022 The Associated Press. All rights reserved)

Six tries to guess five letters that make up one word. The simple premise that became a global sensation first emerged as a way of taking our minds off any stress happening around us when we were confined to our homes during the pandemic. But while Wordle, and countless other phone and internet games, offered a respite for some, not everyone found the games as comforting or as simple as they seemed.

In the years since, games have become part of a daily routine for many, whether it’s attempting to solve the puzzle first thing in the morning or completing it during a free moment while preparing for bed.

Perhaps the most popular of the games is Wordle, which the public first began playing in October 2021, but which the creator, Josh Wardle, sold to The New York Times in January 2022. The game requires players to guess a five-letter word in six tries and they are given feedback after each attempt to guess the word correctly. Green tiles reveal if the letter is in the right spot, yellow tiles indicate the letter is in the word but not in the right spot, and a gray tile means the letter is not in the word at all.

However, a recent report in the Daily Beast suggested the New York Times games, including Connections and the Mini Crossword, may be harming our mental health more than helping it. The outlet spoke to mental health professionals who explained the downsides of the games, and how the need to complete, or win, each daily iteration may be interfering with our lives.

Dr Clifford Sussman, a psychiatrist in Washington who specializes in internet and gaming addiction, told the outlet in the report that “our brains have not evolved to keep up with technology”.

“Technology today is essentially a shortcut to everything and our brains can’t resist that. And the shortcut to a sense of accomplishment while playing one of these online games releases dopamine into the brain. Seeking dopamine release could lead to compulsive and sometimes problematic behaviors,” he said.

Meanwhile, New York psychologist Jennifer Gittleman told the outlet that she has come across patients in her practice who mention not being able to complete their everyday tasks because of how much time they spend playing the games.

Many users have even taken to X, formerly known as Twitter, to discuss the impact Wordle has on their own mental health. Although many have joked about the impact losing can have on their day, to others, the outcome is actually difficult to deal with.

“I just lost Wordle today. [Be right back] need to call in a mental health day,” one tweet read.

Another individual wrote: “Taking a break from Wordle to focus on my mental health.”

Some people have even taken to the platform to admit that the game becomes a discussion during scheduled sessions with therapists.

“Therapist: Teagsy, how’s your mental health? Me: Well I did get the Wordle in three tries yesterday,” one instance on X relayed.

According to licensed Thriveworks therapist, Hallie Kritsas, who is an avid Wordle player herself, she has encountered clients who need to talk about the game during their sessions.

Kritsas told The Independent that it is usually her younger clients, who often struggle with anxiety or perfectionism, who Wordle is an issue for.

“They like having structure and they like having a routine because they’ve implemented this, and a part of the routine when they’re not able to successfully complete the Wordle or to make the Connections or solve the Mini Crossword in whatever is deemed an appropriate time, it just sets them off on the wrong course on their day,” she said.

In some cases, tying Wordle to your mental health goes beyond just making sure to take time out of your day to complete the game, and more emphasis is placed on making sure it is correct – even if a user has to cheat in order to solve it.

“For some of the people who have a bit higher levels of anxiety, not being able to complete it obviously brings some sort of sense of disappointment that you couldn’t complete the puzzle,” Kritsas added. “And then if you think that, [it becomes]: ‘Okay, I wasn’t able to figure out the Wordle, what’s wrong with me?’”

Wordle isn’t the only game that can impact mental health, as Connections, which sees users make connections of four words to form groups, can also have a detrimental effect, according to Kritsas. She used the example of when the game purposefully tries to trick players with words that look like they belong together, which may cause players to be upset with themselves for falling for the trick. With people then posting about the answers in group chats or on social media, it can easily lead to self-comparisons based on how quickly you completed the game, or in how many tries compared to another person.

For those who feel the potential negative mental health effects may be outweighing the positives of the games, Kritsas offered some suggestions.

Users can set themselves a time limit for how long they actually want to spend trying to play each game each day. “Set a time limit that says: ‘I’m only going to give myself five minutes or 10 minutes to do it and if I can’t fold it in that time, or I haven’t finished, that I’m done for the day,’” she suggested.

This concept can be expanded to another popular way people spend their time on the internet and social media. According to California State University, an estimated 10 percent or 33.19 million Americans are addicted to social media compared to the average person.

For some people, specifically between the ages of 13 and 17, this addiction can have overall negative effects on their mental health, as data from Statista shows that out of the 1,141 respondents, 43 per cent have deleted social media posts due to receiving too few likes, 43 per cent felt bad about themselves if no one liked or commented on their posts, and 35 per cent reported experiencing cyberbullying.

Kritsas also recommends talking to either a therapist or a loved one if the game does affect your mental health. By opening up the discussion, players can begin to think of alternative, healthier habits they can replace Wordle or other phone games with.

“I do think it’s a great thing to utilize at any point of the day, especially in the morning, to get our brains up and running, but if it’s going to be harmful we probably shouldn’t be playing it,” Kritsas explained.

And, when in doubt, it’s useful to go into the game using the mindset that it’s only a game.

“We should just acknowledge that it’s a game and it’s something that should be fun, and no one’s going to know whether we solve the Wordle or the Connections are solved,” she said.

Although it may seem like people are more frequently experiencing negative thoughts from playing Wordle, Kritsas also pointed out that despite some of her clients talking to her about the game, it’s a fairly rare occurrence that someone is negatively impacted by the hobby.

“I do have a client or two that have talked about it and it’s frustrating and we’ll come in for a session and we’ll say something about a Connection that we found or something like that, but it’s not everybody,” she said.

She continued: “I don’t get the overwhelming perception that this is a huge, huge thing. I think [the games are] wildly popular. I think most of us either do it when we’re at work and on the computer and we have a break or have the New York Times app, and just have it in our hands. But for the majority, I don’t think it’s as distressing as maybe some of the articles are reading it out to be.”