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Video gaming linked to childhood obesity

In the 1950s, children played in the streets.  They ran around playing 'cowboys and Indians' or re-enacting some wartime exploits, or they pulled themselves around on make-shift carts made with pram wheels, or played games like hop-scotch.  We ran around in circles pretending to be this and that.  Now children play outdoors less and sit indoors more.  Were we healthier for it? 

Many of the baby boomers, those born in the late 1940s to early 50s were obese in later life.  Their lifestyles changed as they moved into the consumer society.   They moved around less and diets, on the whole, became 'richer', but probably more unhealthy.  They were the baby boomers. 

The majority of baby boomers are now obese in later life.   But for each subsequent generation, the age at which obesity sets in appears to be getting younger. 

A recent study of Americans showed that obesity rates increased markedly for the baby boomers, beginning earlier in life with each successive birth cohort.  

So what can we expect for children today whose lifestyles are so different from that of the baby boomers? 

A recent study by researchers at Leeds University gives us some idea. 

It shows that playing video games as a young child is linked to an increased body mass index (BMI) as a teenager.

Scientists from the University looked at the health and behaviour of more than 16,000 children in the UK at multiple points during their childhood and early adolescence – first at age five, then again at seven and 14.

They found that children who regularly played video games as a young child had a higher BMI nine years later, compared to those who did not play video games.

The effect remained even when accounting for the amount of other screen time children were exposed to, such as watching television, a result suggesting that it isn't merely the result of sitting for long periods.

What, then,  might explain this specific link of gaming with obesity? 

Sugary drinks and irregular bedtime

Consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages and an irregular bedtime helped explain part of the video game-BMI link, suggesting these associated behaviours may be partly responsible for causing the weight change.

The research is published today in JAMA Paediatrics and is the first study to look at the potential effect of video game use on children’s BMI over time.

“Childhood obesity is one of the biggest public health threats facing this country, with over a third of children in the UK leaving primary school affected by overweight or obesity.”   
Lead author Dr Rebecca Beeken, from the Leeds’ School of Medicine, says the research "shows that consuming sugar-sweetened drinks and going to bed at irregular times may be partly responsible for the associated increased weight.

While the effect size across the whole group is relatively small, "for some children, gaming could represent a significant risk of weight gain." says Dr Beeken.  However, she cautions that "obesity is complex, and this is potentially just one small part of the puzzle."

The research was conducted by the University of Leeds, University College London, Queen's University Belfast, University of Stirling and The Behaviouralist, London.

So why does gaming encourage intake of sugary drinks?

The researchers point out that large amounts of advertising by drinks companies takes place within the virtual worlds of video games.

Brands such as Red Bull, Coca Cola, Boost and Monster, are just some of the many that encourage gamers to buy and consume sugar-sweetened drinks, which can cause weight gain.

While there are restrictions on advertising products like these towards children on television, there are no equivalent laws for advertising through video games.

Dr Beeken said: "There is a recognition that advertising of sugar-sweetened drinks to children should be tightly controlled on television, but advertising within video games has not been considered to the same extent.

"Stricter advertising laws are urgently needed to protect young gamers from being encouraged to drink large quantities of unhealthy products, which we know can have lasting health consequences."
Calculating BMI for children

The researchers studied the data of 16,376 children who took part in the UK Millennium Cohort Study. 

Children who played three hours or more of video games per day aged five had an associated 0.085 higher standardised BMI aged 14, compared to those who did not play video games.

The BMI-SDS range considered to be healthy from age five to 20 is -2 to 1, with the possible risk of overweight defined as 1 to 2, overweight as 2 to 3 and obesity any score over 3.

For comparison, a previous study found that ten-year-old children who played sports less than twice a month had a BMI-SDS score of 0.11 higher four years later, compared to those who played sports every day.

Previous research suggests that a 0.25 change in BMI-SDS is needed to impact cardiovascular risk in children, so the video game-BMI association is unlikely to be clinically meaningful for heart health. But the researchers emphasise that this is one part of the puzzle that may help us tackle childhood obesity.

PhD researcher William Goodman, who conducted the research while at University College London and is now at the University of Leeds, said: "We are certainly not suggesting that gamers or their parents should chuck their consoles out of the window.

"But we think it is important to recognise that some gamers could be at risk of gaining weight and that there are steps we can take to minimise these risks.

"One option would be to encourage parents to use the inbuilt parental settings on gaming consoles to set time restrictions on how long children can play for. Another option would be to work collaboratively with games developers to embed behaviour change components within games to encourage positive behaviour change.

"One option would be to encourage parents to use the inbuilt parental settings on gaming consoles to set time restrictions on how long children can play for. Another option would be to work collaboratively with games developers to embed behaviour change components within games to encourage positive behaviour change.

"There is no way forward without engaging with the gaming community on possible next steps."


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