After Hours

Do video games really make you fat, depressed?

The headline du jour is that the average gamer is 35, depressed, and fat. Larry Dignan explains why the reality may be a bit more nuanced.

This is a guest post from Larry Dignan of TechRepublic's sister site ZDNet. You can follow Larry on his ZDNet blog Between the Lines, or subscribe to the RSS feed.

The headline du jour is that the average gamer is 35, depressed and fat. The reality may be a bit more nuanced.

MSNBC runs with a study conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Emory University and Andrews University. That trio analyzed survey data from 552 adults in the Seattle area. The study, published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine, examined whether gamers were indeed fatter as measured by the body mass index.

While the MSNBC story covered the basics, it's worth reading the full study. Was there a causal relationship between video games and being overweight and depressed? What other factors were considered? For instance, a gamer who ate his fruits and veggies while playing may be better off than the guy woofing down cheeseburgers.

Let's roll the complete study (release, full study pdf, associated article). The last paragraph of the study puts things in proper context:

Although the findings of this study help illuminate the health consequences of video-game playing, several caveats should be acknowledged. Because this study uses a cross-sectional design, conclusions about causality cannot be made. The fact that the sample was drawn from a population concentrated in western Washington State and from an Internet-based panel may limit generalizability of the results. However, the data reveal important patterns in health-related correlates of videogame playing and highlight avenues for future research.

Other observations:

Video game players are indeed more overweight, but non-players aren't exactly buff. Players in the study had a BMI of 28.05 and non-players had a BMI of 26.55. For the record, both categories are overweight. A BMI of 25 to 29.9 makes you overweight. Anything above 30 is obese. If you lift weights and are athletic you're likely to be annoyed with the BMI — you're going to be listed as overweight. According to this study, I'd be better off playing video games all day to get my BMI down since my score tops the gamers. A 6 foot person who weighs 160 would be considered normal weight. Calculate your own BMI score. There's a chicken and egg between social support and video games. Does a lack of social support lead to video game playing or vice versa? The report states:

Significant differences between video-game players and nonplayers are evident within both domains of personal determinants. Video-game players reported more depression, lower extraversion, and greater psychoticism than nonplayers. Differences are also evident for three of the five measures in the health-assessment domain: Videogame players reported lower health status, a higher frequency of poor-mental-health days, and higher BMI. Significant differences between video-game players and nonplayers within both domains of environmental determinants are also evident. Video-game players reported that they received less social support from family members and friends and that they perceived the Internet community as a positive social support. Video-game players also estimated that they spent more time using both the Internet and TV.

Here are the full results:

Click the image to enlarge.
Women self-medicate with video games. The report notes:

Distinct differences in the health correlates of female and male video-game players are also evident. Female video-game players reported greater depression and lower health status than female nonplayers; male videogame players reported higher BMI than male nonplayers. One interpretation of these findings is that, among women, video-game playing may be a form of "digital self-medication."

The main takeaway is that this study is just a starter set for more inquiry. More research is needed, but it doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out that video games could be lumped in with junk food and other sins as the nanny state looks to get people to take better care of themselves.

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