by Jeff Clemetson, Editor
One of my favorite end-of-summer rituals when I was a kid was sharing what I did over the summer break with my classmates on the first day of school. I’d get to brag about playing for the all-star little league team, or perhaps a vacation with my family. I’d get to hear about my friends’ trips to pools or visits to the ocean and the occasional depressing story about a boring trip to Aunt Clara’s, or worse – summer school. Whether good or bad, exciting or boring, the stories we shared about our summers had at least one thing in common – we spent them, for the most part, outside. Which is why I found it disturbing last week when my wife, who teaches art at a local elementary school, told me that a large chunk of her students admitted to spending their summer, not outside playing, but indoors playing video games.
But what is even more disturbing than finding out that my neighborhood’s children are spending their summers sitting on couches, glued to their TVs and joysticks is a news story from early August about a South Korean man who died after a marathon video game session. On August 3, 28-year-old Lee (the only name given in the article) collapsed in an internet café in the city of Taegu while playing the online game “Starcraft 3.” According to a Taegu police official, the cause of death was presumed to be heart failure stemming from exhaustion.
Unfortunately, this isn’t the first instance of a South Korean who died while immersed in video games. In December of 2010, a teenager named Moon collapsed at an online game center after playing a shooting game for 12 hours straight.
Although these cases are extreme and rare, it is true that video game addiction has become a major problem for today’s youths. Unlike television, where shows are passive and can lead to boredom quickly for children, video games allow the user to actively participate in fantasy scenarios for hours at a time. How widespread is the problem? According to a survey by Psychologist Professor Mark Griffiths, author of several studies on online gaming and gambling addiction, out of 540 gamers surveyed, four had played video games for over 80 hours a week.
There are many factors on why children turn to video games rather than traditional, outdoor playtime activities – lack of access to safe outdoor play places, lack of funding for after school programs, two working parents who cannot supervise their children and would prefer them to be safe at home anyways and the increasing realism of video games. All of these factors lead to children (and parents) accepting staying at home and playing video games as a safe alternative to playing outside.
The health consequences of replacing playing video games over outside activity are apparent in the childhood obesity rates, which have skyrocketed over the last decade or so. Over 18 percent of boys and 17 percent of girls aged 6 to 11 today are considered obese compared to just over 4 percent of boys and 3 percent of girls age 6 to 11 in 1974.
And obesity isn’t the only potential problem caused by constant indoor play. Playing outside as a child and using imagination and physical activity are important in helping develop social skills and confidence. Being good at a video game is a narrow set of skills. Like all activities, there will be a few really good gamers and most others will be adequate. Children who play outside soon realize that it is OK to be adequate at some activities because they find they are good at others – the child who can’t run as fast might be the fastest swimmer, etc.
According to studies by the Kaiser Family Foundation, 83 percent of young people aged 8 to 18 have access to a video game console in their home. In that same age group, 90 percent of boys and 40 percent of girls play video games. Girls also play less frequently than boys – 33 percent of girls who play video games do so only once a month compared to 10 percent of boys who play only once a month. Considering the declining ratio of men to women who graduate from college, this could be a major factor. According to a study in the Archives of Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine, children who play video games spend 30 percent less time reading and 34 percent less time doing homework than non-gamers.
Video games are not going to go away. It is up to parents to stay involved with their children and promote physical activities during summer vacations and after school. Monitoring your child’s video game use is the first step in battling video game addiction. Other traditional ways to promote physical activity such as sports leagues; family trips to the outdoors and educational trips to museums and monuments are also great parenting tools to keep your children fit and active. It’s time to save video games for rainy days and leave summer vacations for what they are best for – playing outside.