Playing Video Games to Get Healthier

Electronic media interventions for kids like computer and video games may help improve healthy behaviors

April 8, 2013 / Author:  / Reviewed by: Joseph V. Madia, MD

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(dailyRx News) Much attention has focused on the violence in video games and whether they can be a problem for kids' development. But the video games also may be used for good.

A recent study found that using computer games, video games, videos and other forms of electronic media can be used to promote healthier behaviors.

A review of the research revealed positive changes in managing asthma, increasing physical activity, improving diet, abstaining from sex and learning general safety skills.

"Look for video games that encourage healthy behaviors."

The study, led by Kimberly Hieftje, PhD, of the Department of Internal Medicine at Yale University School of Medicine, looked at how effective the use of electronic media-based interventions are in improving kids' health or safety behaviors.

These kinds of interventions would be ones that use computer games, video games, interactive video or other types of electronic interventions to try to change an unhealthy or risky behavior.

The researchers looked for all studies through September 2010 in the MEDLINE and PsycINFO databases that attempted to use electronic media to change the behavior of participants aged 18 and younger.

The researchers identified 19 studies to include in their analysis. Seven studies focused on changes for physical activity and/or nutrition, six studies focused on changes related to asthma, three related to general safety behaviors, two focused on risky sexual behaviors and one related to diabetes management.

The studies also took place in different settings. Seven involved clinical settings (such as a doctor's office, lab or hospital), seven took place in schools, three took place in homes and two took place in other locations.

The participants's ages ranged from 3 to 18, and the studies' populations ranged from five participants to 1,876 participants. Eleven of the studies used a computer game or other simulator for the intervention, and three used video games. Two used an Internet-based program, game or virtual reality program, two used video clips or interactive video and one used other computer-based elements.

Only five of the studies were rated as "excellent" in terms of the methods they used. However, all but two of the studies reported at least one effect that could be attributed to the electronic media intervention.

Among the behavior changes that occurred with the electronic media intervention were increases in fruit, juice or vegetable consumption, increases in physical activity, improved management of asthma, greater abstinence from sex and improvements in street and fire safety skills.

For example, two studies showed that participants decreased their sedentary time and increased their physical activity. In another study, the rates of obesity among the female participants decreased, based on their body mass index (BMI). Another study showed a drop in participants' average systolic blood pressure (top number of a blood pressure reading).

In the asthma studies, one group showed lower asthma symptom scores after the intervention, and another showed fewer hospitalizations among kids under age 12.

Of the studies involving risky sexual behavior, one study found that adolescents were more likely to be completely abstinent for up to three months after participating in computer-based activities related to reducing sexually transmitted infections, waiting to have sex and other sexual health behaviors.

However, the authors noted that one limitation to the ideas of these interventions is that they may not be available to kids and teens.

"Although electronic media–based interventions can promote health and safety behaviors in youth, there may be some limitations in accessing these interventions outside school," the authors wrote. "Because youth from lower-income environments are slightly less likely than those from higher-income environments to go online or to report owning a computer, they may have more limited access to Internet-and computer-based interventions."

The researchers did note that video games might be one form of media that could overcome this limitation since they are used frequently across all economic groups and racial/ethnic groups.

The study was published April 8 in the journal JAMA Pediatrics. The research was funded by the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, the Yale Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Clinical Scholars Program and the US Department of Veterans Affairs. The authors declared no conflicts of interest.