Exploring the Myth that Video Games Make Kids Fat
It Sounds True
I recently gave a talk in front of a group of small 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 part of my presentation a father asked, “I don’t want my kid to get fat from playing video games. What’s wrong with playing outside?”
I don’t remember exactly what I said at the time, but I do remember being unsatisfied with my response. Most of the time I’m focused on the emotional development and mental health of gamers. I want to fight loneliness by bringing kids together with video games. The accusation that video games make kids obese has always bothered me. It certainly wasn’t true for my kids, but I’ve heard some variation on that charge so often I decided to do some research. I wanted to know the story regarding childhood obesity and video games. Did too much video gaming make some kids fat? What was clear to me is that many parents see video games as an obstacle to raising healthy children, not an enabler.
Now I think I know why.
Most parents want to raise healthy, well adjusted kids that are prepared for the future, videogames can feel like an obstacle to those goals.
In 1998, Professor Thomas M Robinson performed a study asking the question, “Does television cause childhood obesity?”1. Over the last 20 years this question has morphed from television to video games. The results of the study were interesting in that they discovered a correlation, 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?”
This may feel like splitting hairs to a lot of people, but causation and correlation are not the same. When I was in school a professor told me the anecdote of a Russian Czar who ordered all the doctors of a certain province put to death. The rational? There was disease wherever the doctors went.2 This is a cautionary tale to remind us not to confuse cause and correlation. Hopefully it is painfully clear that doctors were there to treat the disease. They did not cause it.
Back to kids and screen time. It is enough for many parents to know that a study links obesity and screen time. For many it feels true that video games make kids obese.
However, I think there’s another, more useful way to think about it. Is the goal to raise healthy kids, or kids who play less video games? What if they can play games and be healthy?
It turns out there might be a way to do just that. Because as we’ll explore in other papers, getting your kids to stop playing games as almost any mom will tell you, is a lot harder than it sounds.
What is driving the obesity epidemic among children?
I can not tell you that I have exhaustively researched this issue. I have only explored it in relation to video games and what I found might surprise you. There seem to be two factors at work. The good news is that there are things you can to improve your child’s overall health without getting into a battle over video game time.
Let’s start with weight
About a decade after Dr. Robinson published his study, he went back with another group of researchers and conducted another study. This study would focus on the impact controlling children’s screen time on their body weight.3 In 2008, they monitored the weight of a group of children compared to a control group. Their screen time was carefully managed and after six months the test group, on average, lost one pound of weight.
Around the same time, a different group approached the problem from another angle with a study that focused on diet. They provided nutrition counseling to the families of 8 to 12 year old children who played a lot of video games.4 After six months, this test group produced a weight loss of 15 pounds on average for the participants.
The Conclusion: Managing screen time had very little impact. Managing diet had an enormous impact.
According to Michael Moss in his best selling book Salt, Sugar, and Fat,5 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.6
What’s more, in the second study the changes in diet produced changes that persisted, where as the changes in exercise produced nominal long term impact on body mass index. In a wider context, this finding seems to be supported by an overall increase in screen time, but no corresponding increase in obesity. Basically, kids are playing more video games than they did 20 years ago but not putting on more weight. This is good news because it means one of the key variables in children’s health can be solved outside of gaming.
Gamification is the act of turning some ordinary activity into a game. Former Seattle Seahawks wide receiver turned Broadcast Jordan Kent created a fun and useful nutrition program for kids. He consulted with top experts in the fields of nutrition to build a program for the kids who attend his sports skill camps. Because it’s built like a video game, the program is also ideal for gamers.
Level Up Health is not the only program out there to help children eat better, but it’s a great start. I also had the opportunity to meet Jordan at E3 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.
Looking at the research it’s easy to see why parents are leary 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: weight, and overall fitness. In this installment, I shared my discover that there is growing evidence that nutrition is the single largest contributor to childhood obesity. I also recommend one resource to help both parents and children understand how to eat healthier.
In my next blog, we’ll dig into fitness and take a look at some of the macro trends that have changed the way our children play and think about play. In short, we’ll look into why your gamer may not be into team sports.
Ask yourself what role food plays in relation to video gaming? One useful tool is to keep a food diary. Taking notes and looking at the results is a good way to gather valuable information that can lead to better decision making. Currently nutrition education for children is one of the top priorities for the Harlem Children’s Zone. Would that make a difference for your family?
As always, my goal is to help you find ways to produce better results for your family.
Let me know how it goes.
Next week I’ll dig into fitness…
1Does Television Cause Childhood Obesity? https://jamanetwork.com/journals/jama/article-abstract/187358
2Now I could find no recounting of this story online, so I have to leave it as apocryphal.
3A Randomized Trial of the Effects of Reducing Television Viewing and Computer Use on Body Mass Index in Young Children https://jamanetwork.com/journals/jamapediatrics/fullarticle/379222?resultClick=1
4The original study is no longer available on JAMA, however the results were reported here https://slate.com/technology/2012/04/are-video-games-making-kids-fat-screen-time-and-childhood-obesity.html
5The Extraordinary Science of Junk Food: https://www.nytimes.com/2013/02/24/magazine/the-extraordinary-science-of-junk-food.html?pagewanted=all_
6Atomic Hibits by James Clear p33.