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Perspective

Video games — friends or “frenemy” to kids’ health?

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Aetna Foundation president Dr. Garth Graham recently moderated a panel at the Building a Healthier Future Summit that took a closer look at the “exer-gaming” trend and what it could mean for kids today and in the future.

If you asked a group of parents today how much time their children would spend playing video games if given the choice, you would likely be met by a chorus of eye rolls worthy of a high school assembly. According to a study by the Pew Internet & American Life Project, 97 percent of boys and 94 percent of girls play video games. We all know that video games have a reputation for contributing to a sedentary lifestyle, but they also have the power to transport users to an alternate reality, become heroes and even get up and move. With this in mind, I asked a group of panelists at the Building a Healthier Future Summit a question: when it comes to our kids and video games, are they a friend or frenemy?

Our panelists discussed the potential benefits and pitfalls for video games that encourage the shift from passive screen time to active screen time. Could video games actually help increase motion and improve health outcomes?

Carrie Bishke, director of brand integrations at Ubisoft, suggested that there is an opportunity with video games to “gamify” fitness to make exercise a fun activity for children and adults. Ubisoft’s game “Just Dance” uses current Top 40 music and choreography to teach users a dance routine and is the top selling dance video game on the market. It has been utilized by parents and teachers to get kids moving and active.

Stephen Yang, founder of ExerGame Lab, described how video games can be a tool for children with disabilities. “Video games have a potential gateway effect to a healthier lifestyle and provide a safe place to empower children with disabilities to be active and show them what they can do.”

According to Bishke, “We look at gaming through the pop culture lens of young people into the reality of their world. We’ve been successful because we’ve created a game that is relevant to them, energizes them and makes them excited about fitness.”

Limit screen time

On the other side of the discussion, Dr. Victor Strasburger, a pediatrician and founding chief of the Division of Adolescent Medicine at the University of New Mexico School of Medicine, offered some cautions about the potential effects of video games as part of overall media consumption. “While active video gaming is one way of using media more wisely, even good media use needs to be limited as the average child spends seven hours a day with media.” Dr. Strasburger also cited the American Academy of Pediatrics guidelines that suggest parents should limit their children’s intake of media (including video games and television) to no more than one to two hours per day.

The panel offered five real-world tips to help make video games more of a true friend for today’s families:

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  • Join in the fun and look for games that allow the whole family to participate.
  • Gamify fitness by allowing your children to play games that encourage movement, such as virtual sports or dancing.
  • Think like a kid when selecting a video game, and select one that’s relevant to their day to day lives. For example, a dance game should include music that they already listen to, which will encourage usage.
  • Keep an open dialogue and talk to your children if you have concerns about a game’s subject matter.
  • Remember that there’s a time and place so keep video games, and similar media, out of your children’s bedrooms to encourage screen-free time.

Still a need for innovation

Clearly people are ready to use technology to improve their health. As a cardiologist, I’ve seen this directly as patients download programs on their smartphones to track their calorie intake and daily walks. And according to a Pew study, one in three mobile phone users have used their phones to look up health information.

Yet the technology on the market has advanced faster than the clinical science that offers evidence-based guidelines for tracking health outcomes from the use of video games and similar tools. That’s why the Aetna Foundation recently launched the Healthier World Innovation Challenge to drive digital health innovation. The Challenge will award up to $4.5 million in grants. As many as six Challenge winners will each receive up to $750,000 over three consecutive years as well as the support of the Aetna Foundation and partner resources to implement their innovation.