Video games rather than TV may be linked to childhood obesity

March 23, 2004

AUSTIN, Texas—A study by researchers at The University of Texas at Austin suggests that watching television is not associated with children’s weight, but playing electronic games may be—especially for girls.

“Children with higher weight status spent moderate amounts of time playing electronic games, while children with lower weight status spent either a little or a lot of time playing electronic games,” said Dr. Elizabeth A. Vandewater, who led the study published in the February issue of the Journal of Adolescence.

Although the greater weight/video game link was found in this study with girls, she noted that future studies may reveal similar findings for boys. Either way, the findings could be significant considering how many American children play electronic games.

Vandewater, who directs the university’s Center for Research on Interactive Technology, and other researchers in the Department of Human Ecology, surveyed 2,831 children ages one to 12, recording their media habits and calculating their body mass index (BMI), a ratio of height to weight that indicates how fat or thin a person is.

“While both television and video-game play can reasonably be considered sedentary activities, video-game play was related to children’s weight status while television was not,” she said. “This may mean that video-game play, but not television use, is indeed displacing the time children spend in more physically demanding pursuits.”

Why has it been thought that viewing the tube leads to overweight children? One long-standing view could be called the “couch potato hypothesis”—kids sit, immobile, watching a screen instead of playing sports. A second view ties TV watching to eating, either through a barrage of ads (mostly for food) or because children snack while watching.

Vandewater said she finds the persistence of the view that watching television makes kids fat puzzling, given much research to the contrary. The connection between obesity and television is weak, she said.

In her study, heavier children with higher BMIs seemed to play video games moderately but read or used computers for non-game purposes either very little or a lot more than those with a lower BMI. The heavier children spent more time in sedentary activities than thinner ones, but they did not spend any more or less time in moderately or extremely active activities.

Children with lower BMIs, on the other hand, used print or computers for non-game purposes moderately, and video games either more or less than their heavier peers. Their weight status also bore no relation to their activity levels.

The relationship of weight to activity might seem paradoxical. That heavier children were more sedentary makes some sense, but that they were just as active as thinner children doesn’t. Yet Vandewater found no connection between weight and activity. She suggests that while they spend more time sitting down, heavier kids may also become more active at other times in an attempt to lose weight. That would equalize activity levels in high and low BMI groups.

Vandewater cautioned that the study reflects an association of factors, not causes. For instance, she found that electronic game use was connected to weight among girls but not among boys. That doesn’t mean that playing games made these girls heavier. It may be that overweight girls turn to electronic media because they felt socially isolated.

For children as well as adults, media fill up free time, she said. Overweight children are more sedentary and have fewer friends and may simply find themselves with more free time on their hands. This implies that media use is the result of obesity, rather than the other way around.

“It would be wonderful if there were a quick and easy solution to the problem of obesity in American youth,” Vandewater said. “Unfortunately, the data available to date do not support the notion that turning off the television or unplugging the video-game console amounts to a ‘magic bullet’ which will reduce the prevalence of childhood obesity.”

—Aaron Levin and Barbra Rodriguez

For more information contact: Barbra Rodriguez, College of Natural Sciences, 512-232-0675.