Beyond the joysticks, off the couch

Beyond the joysticks, off the couch

As a new parent eight years ago, I swore never to buy a video game system, certain that my child would spend her leisure time reading and playing outside.

I recently remembered this vow while waiting two hours outside the Nintendo store in Manhattan, trying to get my hands on the Nintendo Wii, a popular video game system.

While the active video games are an improvement, excessive video game playing by kids is still cause for concern. Exposure to violent video game content is linked with aggression and antisocial behaviour, and game playing has been shown to have a small but measurable impact on time spent reading and on homework for certain children.

However, several studies show that the games can significantly increase a child’s level of activity while playing indoors. In one New Zealand study, researchers studying game use by 21 children showed that active video games produced about as much activity as walking, skipping and jogging, according to the report in August in Pediatric Exercise Science.

Some of the new active video games burn more calories than walking on a treadmill, the American Academy of Pediatrics reported last year. In that study, researchers at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, measured how many calories kids burned in 15 minutes of watching television, walking on a treadmill, playing a traditional seated video game (Disney’s Extreme Skate Adventure) or playing two active games. One of the active games, Dance Dance Revolution, requires players to follow steps using a dance pad, while Nicktoons Movin’ Jellyfish Jam uses the Sony EyeToy, which is controlled by body movements. The EyeToy game burned about as many calories as walking on a treadmill, while dance pad users burned even more.

The Mayo Clinic group is conducting a similar study of the Nintendo Wii. Says Lorraine Lanningham-Foster, assistant professor at the Mayo Clinic: “There are people who think, no matter how you repackage it, they are still video games and kids shouldn’t be sitting down in front of the TV or a computer to play them. But they’re not sitting down. That’s the whole aspect of these new games—they are moving." The bigger worry for many parents is whether video games interfere with real sports activities and time with friends and family or distract children from studies.

Researchers from the University of Texas at Austin looked at how nearly 1,500 adolescents and teenagers—ages 10 to 19—spent their time, and compared the habits of video game players with non-players (the data was collected in 2002 and 2003, before the new active games were popular). Overall, there were no significant differences between gamers and non-gamers in the time they spent with parents and friends or involved in sports or other active activities, according to the report in July in The Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine.

Among girls, video-game play had no effect on reading time. But for every hour a boy played a video game during the school week, he read just two minutes less than a boy who didn’t play video games.

Video games didn’t affect boys’ homework time. But girls who played video games during the week spent 13 fewer minutes on homework, representing about one-third less time, than non-gamers. The meaning of that finding is not clear, as high academic achievers often spend less time on homework as well.

Researchers say far more study is needed to understand what type of children play video games and how time spent playing games affects other parts of their lives.

The American Academy of Pediatrics says children under 3 shouldn’t spend any time in front of the television or video games. Parents who buy active video games should still make sure that a child’s overall media diet of computer use, television, videos and games does not exceed the academy’s recommendation of less than one to two hours a day.

“As a parent, you still have to regulate and monitor what they’re doing," Lanningham-Foster said. “It still boils down to limits." ©2007/ The New York Times

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