Can Video Games Affect Kids’ Wellness? New Research on the Connection Between Good Health & Games

January 18, 2013

At HSC, we've followed with interest over the years as video games have become a bigger part of the conversation about healthy eating and physical activity.  Gaming continues to become more a part of classroom and out-of-school learning. But what impact does it have? Do games really increase physical activity? Do messages about healthy eating of junk food really have an impact on what kids eat? With two new studies in the news, we're taking a moment to check in on this trend.

First, the food: one new study found that games involving food products may encourage unhealthy habits.

According to NPR's story earlier this month on the research:

…Children who play with these games may eat more, and eat more junk food, even if the game features fruit or other healthful choices.

Called “advergames” by their critics, junk food-centric games and apps have names such as “Cookie Dough Bites Factory” and “Candy Sports“. It's easy for parents and teachers to guess that these may be dubious choices for chidren. 

But even more intriguingly, all food-themed games seemed to negatively affect kids' eating habits — even when fruit played a starring role.

The researchers say they assumed that the children who played the fruit game would choose fruit. But boy, were they wrong. All the children who played a food-themed game ate more, and ate more candy, even if they played the fruit game.

“We were very surprised,” Frans Folkford, a graduate student in communications at the University of Amsterdam who led the study, tells The Salt. The children who played food-themed games took in about twice as many calories as children who played a non-food game, or played no game at all. The work was published online in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.

Other studies have found that video games involving fruit can boost kids' fruit consumption — but also tend to increase their overall calorie consumption. “A lot depends on the game and the actual messages in there,” said Jennifer Harris, director of marketing initiatives at the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at Yale University. “It's very complicated.” In that context, experts say that parents should keep an eye on mobile games and tablet apps. Harris adds: 

Pay attention to what your kids are downloading… A lot of parents figure as long as it's free and it's listed as for children, they assume it's safe and not harmful. You really can't assume that.

Here's the full story on this new research.

And on to physical activity: research also suggests that physically active video games can actually help kids be more active and play a role in efforts to curb childhood obesity. Researchers said: “It appears as though e-gaming may provide an effective adjunct to traditional PE activities in promoting recommended daily levels of — at least in younger children and perhaps in overweight/obese children.”

The lesson, as always, is about getting kids moving in fun, educational ways. We'll continue to follow the research and conversation emerging around games as one approach to boosting activity.

Looking for an offline way to help kids get active? We love the idea of using yoga in the classroom. Check out this post from mindfulness expert Carla Tantillo for more on a unique, engaging way to increase student health!