On the move: video games and children’s activity levels

We wanted to know how children spent their time in the absence of video games and whether ‘active’ video games were the better option. bradimmanuel/Flickr

Passive pastimes such as watching television and playing video games are often the easy option for parents but not necessarily good for their children. But is the solution “active” video games that the gaming industry is promoting as the healthy alternative?

My colleagues and I set out to see how children spent their time in the absence of video games. And whether the newer, more active video games were indeed the better option.

One pastime to another

The amount of time children spend watching television hasn’t changed much in the past ten years, from three hours a day in 1999 to just under that in 2009.

But the amount of time they spend playing video games has risen rapidly from under 30 minutes a day a decade ago to between 30 minutes and 90 minutes daily.

In that time, video games have gone from fairly crude incarnations that required players to press arrow keys on a keyboard to using touchscreens, buttons, a mouse, or a joystick connected to computers, dedicated game consoles, tablets or smart phones.

We can even now move our arms and legs or whole body to play the new “active” video games.

Laboratory studies show that children are sedentary when playing traditional “press button” video games, but moderately active when playing new “active” video games such as Sony PlayStation Move, Microsoft Kinect and Dance Dance Revolution.

But until now, we didn’t know what happened when we removed video games from the equation all together.

The research

In a small study my colleagues and I published in BMJ Open last week, we looked at exactly that – how active children are in the absence of video games.

Children now spend up to three times more time playing video games than they did ten years ago. mlball/Flickr

We studied 56 children aged between 10 and 12 based in Perth, Australia. They agreed to abstain from playing video games for two months and we used activity monitors to check how active and sedentary they were on weekends and after school from 3:30pm to 6pm.

The same children also spent the next two months playing a range of non-violent video games using traditional “press button” interaction and a further two months playing new active video games.

Our findings show that taking all video games away from children increases their level of activity after school and marginally decreases the time they spend sitting during this period. The children spent just nine minutes after school being active when they had video games and 13 minutes when the games were removed.

They reduced their after school sitting time from 93 minutes, to 88 minutes when the games were removed.

We also found that replacing traditional “press button” games with new active video games increased their amount of activity after school and decreased the time they spent sitting. But again, the difference in activity time between old “press button” and new active games only resulted in an extra five minutes of active time a day.

What to do

Video games are an important part of life for many children – they enjoy playing them and the games often provide an important topic for social interaction. But we found that, for most children, the impact of playing video games on their overall level of activity is quite small.

While every option to help children be less sedentary should be promoted, our research shows that taking away video games is no better than replacing traditional video games with active video games.

Given what we found, we think it’ll probably be easier (and just as effective) for parents and other carers to work with the technology rather against it. They should encourage children to switch to active video games and, even more strongly, try to get children to play in the “real world”.