Can ‘exergames’ get kids off the couch?

Apparently you can lead a horse to Wii, but you can’t make him play with it. A study published this spring in the journal Pediatrics found that having access to an ‘active’ video game did not increase children’s overall physical activity levels. Researchers gave Wii consoles to 78 kids age 9 – 12 whose body mass index makes them at risk for adult obesity. The test group got to choose two active video games (from a selection including Dance Dance Revolution and Active Life), and the control group got to select two inactive games (including Disney Sing-It Pop Hits and Mario Kart Wii).

‘Exergames’ may not get kids off the couch.

Researchers fitted the kids with accelerometers to measure their overall physical activity over 12 weeks with the game consoles available in their homes. No significant difference was found between the activity levels of kids with access to the ‘exergames’ and those with access to the inactive ones. In a similar study published last year, a researcher at the University of Mississippi found that the use of the active games dropped significantly after the first 6 weeks.

If you have a Wii console or other ‘active’ gaming system in your home, what are your kids’ favorite games to play? Do they prefer the active or inactive ones? What makes them want to play the games that require them to move around?

“Mom, do I look fat?”

I’m thrilled to learn that the British government has just released an education booklet to help parents talk with their kids about the body ideals they see in media. It was produced by the UK non-profit organization Media Smart, and it’s available for free download. I was struck by the poignant photo on the cover: a little girl wrapping a tape measure around her waist, in an image of weight-loss more often associated with adult women.

Photo of a celebrity before and after digital alteration

One of several celebrity before-and-after digitally altered photos in the booklet

This booklet is incredibly useful, especially because it contains before and after photos of celebrities that have been digitally retouched and reshaped. It is designed to help parents start conversations with kids about images they see and how they feel about their own bodies as a result.

In the age of the Internet, smartphones, and a gazillion channels on TV, kids are often surrounded by imagery of idealized, digitally enhanced bodies. But the silver lining is that computers can also help parents show kids how such images are created. The website PicTreat lets you upload a photo (free, no registration required) and see how it looks with enhancement. Numerous apps, including moreBeaute2 (free, iPhone), let you do the same with your smartphone. And of course, if you have Photoshop, there’s no end to the edits kids can make to their pictures.

How do you talk with your kids about the idealized bodies they see in media? At what age do they start to notice such images and compare their own bodies to what they see?

iPad = sanity saver, kid-crack, or other?

Researchers have been studying the effects of different media on children for decades now. But one of the most ubiquitous and popular among kids now – the tablet computer, iPad, what have you – is so new, we haven’t had a chance to do many studies on it yet. The jury’s still out as to whether this technology is a useful learning tool, or a brain-rotter that will doom a kid to rocking back and forth in a corner while others play.

One thing is for sure: Like its kin the smartphone, it’s an excellent distraction when mom and dad need some quiet time. The first time I saw a friend set up her 3-year-old in front of the screen and put on some Sesame Street on Youtube, I suspected there was some sort of kid-crack in it.

In a research setting, one of the first things media scholars do is observe people using a particular type of media. Parents are some of the best observers, because they watch their kids all the time and they know their habits and preferences. I invite you to share your observations of your kids’ usage of tablet computers. What do they like to watch? What apps are their favorites? Do their eyes glaze over, or are they engaged? Do they ask for the device constantly, or are they content with short periods of use?

Or, if you don’t own a tablet computer or you don’t let your children use it, why did you make that decision?