Are video games making our children fat?

Monday, May 21, 2007
The video game business is truly a global phenomenon with kids and parents spending billions of dollars every year in pursuit of the perfect score.

But how is this obsession affecting their health? Could video games be making our children fat? Our reporter, Leila McKinnon, is on the case.

Video games sure have come a long way since the days of Pong and Space Invaders. Nowadays kids play just about anywhere, from laptops to phones and networked video game shops — it's completely invasive technology.

Critics accuse video games of stealing our kids from more energetic pursuits, like organised sport and playing in the backyard.

"If you're telling your children, 'go out and play, go and be active' and the computer is on and the TV is on, you're probably setting yourself up to fail," says Dr Michael Booth, Director of the NSW Centre for Overweight and Obesity. "By about 2030, half of all Australian kids are going to be overweight or obese — it'll be normal."

Sure, a lot of that's because kids eat the wrong kind of foods, but Dr Booth says television and video games are also part of the problem because kids are inactive for way too long.

But in the United States, researchers are challenging that view. A study at the University of Miami found that playing video games could actually have some health benefits. Dr Arlette Perry, of the university's Exercise and Sports Science Department did the measurements: "We wanted to see for ourselves what would happen when we put small kids, who are the biggest users of video games, in front of a video game."

While the boys played, their vital signs were recorded.

Dr Perry: "We measured their heart rate, we measured their blood pressure, we measured their minute ventilation and how rapidly and how much they breathed, and we got an idea of just how hard they were working while playing the video games."
Leila: "How hard were they working?"
Dr Perry: "Equivalent to walking about two miles an hour."

Video gamers also increased their metabolic and blood pressure rates by an impressive 40 percent.

Leila: "So playing video games might not be as bad as we think?"
Dr Perry: "Watching video games is much better than watching TV."

Regardless of whether it's television or video games, parents still need to set limits, says Michael Booth. "If you just press the off button and restrict how much time kids can spend in front of the small screen, very often they'll just migrate out of the house and into doing something active because it's the next most interesting thing to do."

The Seyshell family has taken that message to heart with the kids spending a lot more time in the backyard these days. It's all thanks to dad David who figured the kids were spending too much time on computer games, so he rigged up a little timer.

"The reason I was able to set up the timer is because I’m an electrician by trade. I certainly wouldn't recommend people muck around with power at home but it's been very handy for me, this application," he says.

So the kids can play their video games, but after one hour, the whole system shuts down.

"I was pretty unpopular for the first week, but after explaining to the kids what the problems were, they came to see that in the end they were happy with it — there was no real drama," says David.

Problem solved! And in the absence of timers, all parents have to do is hit that off button. Or you can play it really smart and turn video games into an ingenious fitness workout. In the United States, an amazing pilot program is underway. Physical education time at Franklin Elementary in West Virginia starts out like any other PE class with a bit of stretching and a bit of running around. But then the kids start stepping up to an interactive video game called Dance Dance Revolution — or DDR.

"They don't see it as exercise or conditioning, they enjoy playing video games," says Dr Linda Carson.

Dr Carson got the idea for getting DDR into schools when she saw a bunch of teenagers playing it in a shopping mall arcade. Immediately she could see its potential in helping solve a massive state-wide problem. West Virginia ranks in the top three states in America for heart disease, diabetes and obesity, but since the introduction of DDR in a pilot program, things are starting to change.

"The results are really amazing. Children who were overweight and obese demonstrated a real decrease in the cardiovascular risk factors that they were demonstrating at baseline," says Dr Carson.

She is now working hard to get DDR into every school in West Virginia, and beyond: "The innovation here is to take something that has been considered part of the problem and make it just a small piece of the solution."

Fast facts

  • What's the average age of video game players in Australia? The answer is 24 and 60 percent of them are male. Perhaps some little boys just never grow up!

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