Watch out for cigarette ads and videogames. They both can be hazardous to your kids' or grandkids' health, according to studies published today in the February issue of the journal Pediatrics. A look at the new research:
In "Pathological Video Game Use Among Youths," researchers found that children and teens who play more video games and who are impulsive and less socially adept are at higher risk of becoming addicted to the activity. "Dopamine is released in the brain when you take cocaine, and it's also released when you play videogames," co-author Douglas Gentile, associate professor of psychology at Iowa State University.
Problem users are more likely to suffer from depression, anxiety, social phobias, and lower school performance. And if they play violent games, they are more likely to behave violently themselves. "Games are powerful," says Gentile. "We should respect that power."
Beware if your videogame-loving child starts to give up friends and activities to stay home and stare at the screen, says Gentile. "There's something really important about keeping it in balance with the rest of your life. That's how addictions are defined. They're not really defined by how much you do something. We define it by how much do they damage their life."
There's no magical "OK" number of hours to play the games. Gentile recommends following the American Academy of Pediatrics' guideline: no more than one to two hours daily of "screen time" (including videogames, computers, and TV). "Parents should set limits," he says. One technique: give teens a "screen-time budget" for the week, along the lines of an allowance.
In "Cigarette Advertising and Teen Smoking Initiation," researchers found that non-smoking teens who saw cigarette advertisements are more likely to begin lighting up than peers who see ads for other products, such as candy. Like movies with stars seductively puffing away, these ad images "glamorize smoking," says Dr. James Sargent, co-author of the study and a professor of pediatrics and community and family medicine at Dartmouth Medical School.
It's tough to control what ads your kids spot unintentionally, but you can limit the number of smoke-filled films they see. Pay attention to the rating system and don't show kids and grandkids R-rated flicks. "We know the more adult-rated movies have more smoking," says Sargent. "Not only are they exposed to glamorized smoking, but they're exposed to drinking, binge drinking, and sexuality before they're even thinking about sexuality." To what's in a film, see reviews on sites such as commonsensemedia.org.
Sargent's bottom line: "It's as important for parents to monitor and control the media diets of their kids as it is to pay attention to what they eat."