Exploring the Myth that Video Games Cause Childhood Obesity
Raising Healthy Kids Who Play Video Games
It Sounds True
I recently gave a talk to a group of business owners when the subject of kids and video games came up. This is not all that surprising given what I do for a living. During the Q&A a father asked, “I don’t want my kid to get fat from playing video games. What’s wrong with going outside and to play?”
The obvious answer is: Nothing!
Except, that’s not the real answer is it. We don’t just let our children go out and play do we? Not unsupervised. Not in a long, long time. Since pictures of children first appeared on milk cartons in 1984[i] scared parents have needed to know where their kids are at all times.
One consequence of this oversight is that unstructured free play time in United States has virtually collapsed. Adult supervised (and organized) team sports has tried to replace it. That has lead to different problems for children, but obesity is not one of them. In fact, the evidence indicate that physical activity (inactivity) contributes far less to childhood health than you would think. Is that healthy for our kids? European parents are not so sure[ii].
If screen time is not causing obesity? What is?
Well, first I think we need to look at the source. Where did this “myth” come from? It came from some pretty decent science and a very, very common media trope: the confusion between correlation, and causation.
In 1998, Professor Thomas M Robinson performed a study[iii] asking the question, “Does television cause childhood obesity?” Over the last 20 years this question has morphed from television to video games. The study discovered a correlation between excessive screen time and obesity, but not a causation. A correlation is when two things frequently occur together, but it is not clear that one causes the other. In this case, Dr. Robinson noted that yes, children who watch a lot of television tend to be more obese than their peers. But he could not prove it was the television watching itself that caused the obesity. Stated another way, “Do obese children watch a lot of television? Or does watching a lot of television make kids obese?”
I had a college professor who explained it this way[iv], a certain Russian Czar ordered all the doctors of a province put to death. His rational? There was disease wherever the doctors went. This is a cautionary tale to remind us not to confuse cause and correlation. Hopefully the doctors were there to treat the disease not to spread it.
Back to kids and screen time. It is enough for many parents to know that a study linked obesity and screen time. For many it feels true that video games at least contribute to their child’s weight.
But is it true? Call me crazy, but what if there was a way to let kids play video games and keep them healthy? I know, there are other reasons to manage screen time, but we’ll get to that, for now let’s stay focused on health. If we want kids to be healthy, we would first have to know what is driving their obesity.
What is driving the obesity epidemic among children?
About a decade after Dr. Robinson published his study, he conducted another study[v]. This study focused on controlling screen time the impact on body weight. In 2008, they monitored the weight of two groups of children. One group had their screen carefully managed. The other group (the control group) played as they had before with no controls. After six months the test group lost an average of one pound of weight.
Let me say that again. The kids who had their screen time carefully controlled, lost an average of 1 pound over six months.
Around the same time, a different group studied the impact of diet on obese children[vi]. They provided nutrition counseling to the families of 8 to 12-year-old children who played a lot of video games. The control group did nothing different. After six months, the test group produced a weight loss of 15 pounds on average for the participants.
Let me repeat that.
The nutrition group lost an average of 15 pounds per kid!
Managing screen time had very little impact.
Managing diet had an enormous impact.
Other studies support this finding. While there has been an overall increase in screen team, child hood obesity has remained relatively constant. Why is that?
According to Michael Moss in his bestselling book Salt, Sugar, and Fat[vii], food scientists have engineered our food to be so satisfying that it is irresistible. The perfect combination of salt, sugar, and fat is called “The Bliss Point”. “We have gotten too good at pushing our own buttons”, according to Stephen Guyenet, a neuroscientist who specializes in eating behavior and obesity.[viii]
I find it exciting that the dietary changes lasted. The kids weight stayed off. The main point here is not to give your kids unlimited video game time, no, the point is that if you want healthy fit kids you need to focus on the root cause, not a sensational symptom. Burning energy doing something that makes no difference and only frustrates you and your child… well… why are you doing that again?
So what can you do about nutrition? Well it turns out there is some good news. Sports Star, Media Personality, and all around excellent human being Jordan Kent created a nutrition program just for kids. He saw the need in his sport camps because in his experience physical exercise is not enough (in line with the studies we mentioned). You have to address nutrition. But Jordan went one step farther. He turned nutrition into a game.
Gamification is the act of turning any ordinary activity into a game. Jordan Kent and his team created a fun and useful nutrition program for kids. He consulted with top experts in the field of health and nutrition to create a program kids can follow. Because it’s built like a video game, the program is also ideal for gamers.
Level Up Health[ix] is not the only program out there to help children eat better, but it is the only one I have found that makes a video game out of learning to eat healthy. I also had the opportunity to meet Jordan and we connected on a number of levels about passion for video games, kids’ health, and the value of using team competition to teach values and life lessons.
It is easy to see why parents are leery about their children spending too much time playing video games. Health concerns are that the top of the list. However, I think we can safely separate the health issue into two categories: Diet, and overall fitness. There is growing evidence that nutrition is the single largest contributor to childhood obesity. I strongly recommend that you check out Level Up Health or a similar program to help manage your child’s diet.
While diet is the major driver, I want to be clear, there is still very much a need for physical fitness, but what we have seen in our camps and programs is that gamers need their own kinds of activities to stay healthy.
[iv] I tried to find the source but could not.
[vii] The Extraordinary Science of Junk Food: https://www.nytimes.com/2013/02/24/magazine/the-extraordinary-science-of-junk-food.html?pagewanted=all_
[viii] Atomic Hibits by James Clear p33.