Earlier this week we had a guest post from Allana Leblanc, summarizing the results of a new systematic review on the health impact of active video games. Yesterday Mike Borghese, another friend and colleague here in Ottawa, posted an interesting article on his own blog. Mike’s post was discussing a recent roundtable discussion in the journal Games for Health, titled “Gaming, Adiposity, and Obesogenic Behaviors Among Children“.
Mike’s post is worth a read in it’s entirety, but I want to highlight one section that I think really gets at the heart of the problem of why active video games are unlikely to ever be a panacea for obesity or other pediatric health problems. From Mike’s post (emphasis mine):
The round table experts begin talking about the ‘energy in’ component of video games – in fact, some suggest that the link between video games and childhood obesity may have more to do with energy in (eating food) than energy out (exercise/activity) [Travis’ note: I’m one of those people, and have written about this in the past here and here]. However, the majority of the solutions or areas for future direction for active video games (AVGs) revolve around energy expenditure, save for a few examples of what might work for reducing food intake. If, as Amanda Staiano suggests, the driving factor for the link between video games and childhood obesity is increased caloric intake instead of the displacement of physical activity, why is there so much emphasis on making games more active?
To the outsider, it would make more sense to do one of two things: the first would be to design games that promote less food intake (ie/ with less food advertisements)- however, there are still factors such as distraction mechanisms, habituation to food cues through non-food stimuli, associated learning to eat when gaming, increased stress response which may lead to over consumption and caloric compensation throughout the rest of the day. Suffice it say, this option doesn’t seem realistic.
In my opinion the best option to minimize the effect of screen time on childhood obesity is to reduce the amount of time kids spend in front of screens – period. TV, video games, computers, smart phones, tablets, etc. Kristi Adamo states an excellent point in her premise “if video games are a non-negotiable priority for children, [then] the ‘active’ gaming direction is logical”. Video games are not non-negotiable – like any behavior, moderation is key, and parents have a major role in demonstrating (through word and action) to their children that alternatives to screen time are feasible, enjoyable and salubrious.
Given what we currently know about screen-based behaviours (active or otherwise), I think Mike is spot-on. We know they increase energy intake, and their ability to increase energy expenditure is spotty at best. And we know that when we restrict screen time, food intake decreases as a result (it is a consistent finding that simply reducing screen time produces reductions in body weight among kids with obesity, details on that here and here).
Given all of the above, it seems like active video games are unlikely to be truly effective in preventing or treating childhood obesity, especially when compared with getting kids away from screens and (ideally) outdoors. I know that’s easier said than done, but it has a much better chance of working.
If you haven’t clicked over already, you can read Mike’s excellent post in full here.