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Video Games Promote Healthier Eating Among Children


July 7, 2009 – Children who play online games promoting healthy foods and beverages appear more likely to choose nutritious snacks than those playing games promoting unhealthy products, according to a new study by Georgetown researchers.

The study, featured in the July issue of Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine, focuses on young people’s use of advergames. The online computer games, developed specifically to promote a brand, often feature logos and characters and are present on many food and beverage websites.

Studies show obesity rates among U.S. children and adolescents have rapidly increased over the past 40 years, and authors of the July report, including Georgetown psychology professor Sandra Calvert, cite media as a contributor to the increase.

“We know far less about how newer media influence children’s food preferences, but Internet use is a very popular activity among youth aged 8 to 18 years,” study authors write. “Marketers have taken notice of this online revenue-generating opportunity in which exposure to products costs less than traditional television advertisements and legal restrictions and regulations are virtually nonexistent.”

Calvert, who also serves as director of the Children’s Digital Media Center at Georgetown, conducted a study involving 30 low-income, African-American children ages 9 to 10. Calvert says numerous studies have shown low-income African-American children impacted by obesity at a higher rate than those from most other racial or ethnic groups.

“Children from low-income households live in neighborhoods that have fewer supermarkets and many fast food restaurants and convenience stores,” says Calvert. “Thus, what they see marketed to them is reflected in their environment, making junk food a stronger influence in their lives.”

Games Could Promote Healthy Habits

One group played a game based on popular 1980s video game Pac-Man, which rewarded the children for having their computer character choose bananas, orange juice and other healthy foods and beverages. A second group played a different version of the game that instead rewarded the consumption of soda, candy bars, cookies and bags of potato chips.

These two groups were instructed to select a snack from among options featured in the game after playing, while a third control group selected a snack and beverage before playing the healthy version of the game.

“With only 10 minutes of exposure, our results revealed that children selected and ate whatever snacks were being marketed by the advergame, healthy or not,” Calvert and co-author Tiffany Pempek, now an assistant professor of psychology at Otterbein College, write.

The findings suggest that public concerns about online games that market unhealthy foods are justified, the authors note, but also that the technology could be used to promote nutritious foods. Additionally, the authors conclude that reaching low-income children via the Internet with positive food messages is feasible.

“Promoting healthy foods through advergames could help children choose and consume healthier foods and beverages, potentially countering some of the negative influences of the high caloric, low nutrient foods that are typically advertised to them,” says Calvert.

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