Children have been gaining weight excessively over the last 20 years. In 1980 6.5% of the children aged 6 to 11 were obese, but by 1994 that number had climbed to 11.3%. Currently over 30% of children are overweight, while 17% are considered obese (Parker-Pope, 2008). What has caused this epidemic like increase in child obesity? There are many proposed causes that have been linked to child obesity. However, if we examine children’s lifestyles over the last 25 years it appears that video games may be the primary contributing factor to the increase in weight and obesity rates amongst children
When video games were first introduced to family households they were considered just another form of entertainment for children, not unlike radios, record players, or televisions. However, video games have evolved into media traps that promote sedentary lifestyles. Children now sit glued for hours to video screens rather than performing physical activities. In a study researchers from the University Hospital of Zurich present a strong association between playing video games and obesity in school-aged Swiss children (Edell, 2004). Their research supported the notion that when children are preoccupied with playing video games, they are not performing physical activity consistent with a healthy lifestyle. Playing video games is a sedentary activity that has a direct affect on weight gain in children.
Some believe that video games have little impact on child obesity rates because children today are more aware and independent than previous generations. As a result, children are more conscious of their lives and are able to make healthy choices regarding exercise and video game playing. However, video games have developed from simple pixels and basic animation to the advanced life like games we see today. The advances in technology have made it difficult for children to stay away from video games, and some researchers believe it has psychological and addictive qualities.
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These powerful qualities make it difficult for children to monitor the amount of time they spend playing video games. In addition, children may also find it difficult to pull themselves away from video games in exchange for healthier physical activities. Dr. Mark Griffiths of Nottingham Trent University, an expert on video game addiction, believes that the games of the 21st century may be more psychologically rewarding then the games of the early 1980s (BBC news, 2000). Subsequently, children may not feel fulfilled until they reach the next level of the game, or beat a high score.
The addictive qualities of video games were revealed in a recent study of children in their early teens. The study revealed that one third played video games daily, and 7% played for at least 30 hours a week (BBC news, 2000). Video games are able to capture children’s minds and start the path to poor health at extremely young ages. Dr. Griffiths suggests that children as early as the age of seven are drawn to video games. The strong addictive qualities of video games may prevent a child from exercising and being active even if they wanted to.
It may be easy to argue that the television is the culprit for overweight children. However, televisions have been in North American households for over 65 years, but the increase in child obesity has occurred within the previous 25 years. Televisions have remained relatively unchanged, but the video game has mutated into an interactive child magnet. Children are able to play on line, play with multiple players, and interact with gamers globally. Today’s video games are also portable, recordable, and are easily rented. In addition, video game advertising is focused at luring and capturing a child’s impressionable mind. Some studies corroborate the findings that video games, not television, are associated with overweight children. Researchers at the University of Texas surveyed almost 3000 children and found that children who played video games were more likely to be overweight than children who only watched television and didn’t play video games (Levin, 2004). Although, televisions have made some technological advancements it appears the attraction to video games may have lead to the weight increase in children.
It was not long ago when children’s laughter echoed from playgrounds and the announcement of “car” was heard from children racing to clear hockey nets from neighbourhood streets. Rather than playing on the streets and schoolyards children now lock themselves indoors playing video games. Some suggest that it is the lack of programs and green space that prevent children from being active. However, physical fitness, health, and sport have never been so accessible. Private enterprise and governments have joined forces realizing the importance of moving children from behind the video screen to the field.
In addition, building developers work with city planners to ensure that housing designs represent communities with playgrounds and schools rather than concrete mazes. An excellent example of the private sector promoting fitness rather than video gaming is the Canadian Tire Jump Start Initiative (City of Hamilton, 2005). This private program, like many others, encourages fitness by providing children and youth with access to sports and recreation. In addition, government programs such as the provincially funded Communities in Action Fund provide after school programs and sport clinics to youth. The possibility of physical activity is all around us, but video games have made it difficult for children to see outside their locked doors.
Of course, it may be easy to blame the fast food industry for the weight increase in children. Fast food restaurants have been in our communities prior to the 1950s, while the most recognizable fast food restaurant, McDonalds, has been in business since 1960. However, the weight increase appears to be steadily increasing within the previous 25 years; consistent with the introduction of video games rather than hamburgers. Interestingly, fast food restaurants have gone through enormous strides to provide healthy menu alternatives such as: soups, salads, lean sandwiches, fruits, and juices. Burger King for example, offers products for children that are consistent with healthy dietary choices, limiting calories, fats, and sugar in their children’s menu (Bissonnette, 2007). Blaming the restaurant industry for the weight increase may appear obvious, but upon a closer inspection it seems restaurants have done more to promote healthy weight in children than the video game industry.
Most of the research measures any correlation between increases in video game playing compared to increases in weight. What would happen if video game playing was reduced? Recent research at the University of Buffalo measured the effects of limiting video game playing (University of Buffalo, 2008). The university experiment was conducted over a 2 year period and revealed that when children restricted their video game playing by an average of 17.5 hours per week they lowered their body mass index significantly. In other words, they lost weight.
In summary, this topic will initiate many theories and possibilities, but there is no arguing that children’s weights have been steadily increasing over the last 20 years. When we examine children’s lifestyles and habits it appears video games may be the primary contributing factor for the weight increase.
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