What are electronic games doing to our kids?

Are you concerned that your kids’ spines are turning into “C” shaped curves? Are you worried that sitting might just be killing them, too? You are not alone! My teenagers spend altogether too much time sitting and lying around, electronic devices in hand. The adults in our house have adopted “Fitbits” and we run in circles at the end of the day, trying to accumulate our target amount of steps. But our modeling of healthy behavior doesn’t seem to be influencing the kids at all. They go to their sporting activities (thank goodness for that!) but when they are home, they are virtually motionless.

Games can be classified as “sedentary” or “active”.  Xbox Kinect® and Wii Fit® are examples of “active” games. Sadly, the sedentary games seem to be most popular in our house. And portable sedentary games (on their phones) are even more ubiquitous – they come with us in the car and on camping vacations!

In the workplace, we’d never expect someone to hold a device, with neck bent, sitting still, on a squishy chair or bed with no lower back support, for many consecutive hours without a break. (But thanks to Josie for posing for the pic, above!) As an ergonomist, I am very concerned about MSD (musculoskeletal) hazards for the necks, backs, and hands, in our house. I’m sure that’s why the research paper by Leon Straker and his group, entitled “Evidence-based guidelines for wise use of electronic games by children”, published in Ergonomics in 2014 caught my attention. They reported stats from various sources (which is why they are not all from the same country). Here are some highlights:

  • Children are exposed to electronic media (including TV, music, games, phones) for an average of 10 hours per day.
  • 38% of children aged 0-5 regularly play electronic games (in Canada).
  • 85% of children aged 5-14 regularly play electronic games (in Australia).
  • 45% of youth aged 8-18 have at least one game console in their bedroom (in the US).
  • Boys report more than twice as much time playing electronic games as girls.
  • In one study, 1/3 of Grade 5 Canadian children reported playing games after their parents thought they were asleep.
  • Some studies have associated high electronic game use with poor attention levels and academic achievement, depression and anxiety, and MSDs. Kids who play electronic games for more than 2 hours per day are likely not getting enough physical activity.

The authors also cite concerns about the increased risk of child obesity and insufficient sleep. Playing electronic games seems to be replacing physically active games in today’s society. They point out that the portability of new games may increase use, since kids can take the game with them when they are in the car, waiting for sporting activities, and even walking to school. Sadly, although active games do seem to help promote more physical activity amongst sedentary kids, participation drops off rapidly – kids don’t get engaged on a long-term basis.

As a huge fan of the Fitbit® and the potential for wearable technology to influence our decisions, I remain optimistic that electronic games CAN be used to improve our lifestyle. They can even be used to improve communication and competition between friends and family members. (My sister and I routinely compare our activity stats, and “taunt” or “cheer” each other onward!) My hope is that, as a society, we will make a conscious shift toward more activity, rather than less. I hope that game developers take on the challenge of designing active electronic games that are more engaging for youth than the sedentary games that are currently the subject of their rapt attention.

In the meantime, an ergonomist’s advice for parents of gamers:

  • limit use to less than 2 hours per day
  • provide reasonable back support (an office chair or recliner is better than a bed or sofa)
  • avoid electronic games in the bedroom
  • encourage the child to support the device on a raised surface to keep the neck less bent
  • promote games that require movement!

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