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“Games cause rickets” – a thorough debunking

By on January 22, 2010
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UPDATE: I’ve emailed the scientists behind the research. They stated “We do not say that gaming causes rickets”. You can see their full views on the misleading press coverage at http://www.gamesbrief.com/2010/01/scientists-behind-games-cause-rickets-deny-a-specific-link/

I know I shouldn’t get angry when lazy journalist pull a games-bashing story out of thin air, but this one really takes the biscuit.

Two senior academics, Professor Simon Pearce and Dr Tim Cheetham have just published a report in the British Medical Journal entitled “Diagnosis and management of vitamin D deficiency

I do not have had access to the full article, and nor am I a medical practitioner or research scientist with the skills and training to understand its implications. However, I do have access to the same press release that journalists at Metro and Times Online have had.

And, boy, does that make me angry.

I’ve posted the entire press release below so you can read it for yourself. The opening paragraph reads:

“Medical experts have called for Vitamin D to be added to milk and other food products, in a bid to halt a rise in the number of children suffering from rickets.”

The link to games is contained in two quotes:

“A traditional UK diet often lacks vitamin D and this could be a big reason for the increasing problem, as well as changes in lifestyle, such as children staying indoors playing computer games.”

and

“Simon Pearce, Professor of Endocrinology, said: ‘Kids tend to stay indoors more these days and play on their computers instead of enjoying the fresh air. This means their Vitamin D levels are worse than in previous years.’”

Can you see the problem? The study is focusing on the increased incidence of Vitamin D deficiency and its consequences. Not only is it not a controlled study into games, the abstract lists a range of risk factors, which include:

skin pigmentation, use of sunscreen or concealing clothing, being elderly or institutionalised, obesity, malabsorption, renal and liver disease, and anticonvulsant use

Or to put it another way, people who have dark skin or cover their skin don’t synthesise enough Vitamin D from the sun. But these issues, such as being old or fat are risk factors, not causes.

And, at best, playing games a lot might be a risk factor. In the Victorian era, long before computer games or televisions, rickets was a huge problem. As Dr Cheetham says:

“I am dismayed by the increasing numbers of children we are treating with this entirely preventable condition.”

But in the very next sentence, he goes on to suggest a totally different cause.

“Fifty years ago, many children would have been given regular doses of cod liver oil, but this practice has all but died out.”

The Guardian (which has a more even-handed approach to the story as befits the home of Ben Goldacre, author of Bad Science), has more details from  Professor Pearce:

“One of the main reasons for the reappearance of rickets – once considered a disease of the industrial poor in 19th century cities– is due to the changing ethnic make-up of the population, Professor Pearce explained.

Most commonly affected, he said, are those of Asian or African descent who live in northern cities. He has examined cases among young Somali speakers who live in east Newcastle.”

This survey makes no causal link between games and rickets, or even Vitamin D deficiency. It has identified a significant public health issue of rising numbers of cases of rickets, an entirely preventable disease that was almost eradicated fifty years ago. The potential causes are many, ranging from a changing population ethnicity, thelack of playing fields for schoolchildren, a culture of fear that prevents children playing outside unsupervised or even feckless parents who no longer feed their offspring a teaspoonful of foul-tasting cod liver oil every day.

But God forbid it’s bad parenting that causes these issues. Let’s blame the screen.

 


Experts call for action to halt rise in rickets
 

Medical experts have called for Vitamin D to be added to milk and other food products, in a bid to halt a rise in the number of children suffering from rickets.

Writing a clinical review in the latest issue of the British Medical Journal Professor Simon Pearce and Dr Tim Cheetham, of Newcastle Biomedicine, a partnership between Newcastle University and the Newcastle Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust, call for a change in public health policy.

Vitamin D deficiency is ‘disturbingly common’ in the UK and can cause a number of serious health problems, in particular rickets in children. 

A traditional UK diet often lacks vitamin D and this could be a big reason for the increasing problem, as well as changes in lifestyle, such as children staying indoors playing computer games. 

Rickets, where children develop painful and deformed bow-legs and don’t grow properly is a condition linked with poverty, starvation, Victorian times or those in the developing world – not with 21st Century Britain. But it is a very real concern, with several studies showing that numbers are increasing. More than 20 new cases are discovered every year in Newcastle alone.

Dr Tim Cheetham, Senior Lecturer in Paediatric Endocrinology at Newcastle University, said “ I am dismayed by the increasing numbers of children we are treating with this entirely preventable condition. Fifty years ago, many children would have been given regular doses of cod liver oil, but this practice has all but died out.”

Half of all adults in the UK have Vitamin D deficiency in the winter and spring, and one in six having severe deficiency. This is worse in northern regions and could be part of the reason for the health gap between the north and south.

And the condition has been linked to cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, several cancers, and autoimmune conditions as well as osteomalacia, which is the painful manifestation of soft bones in adults.

Simon Pearce, Professor of Endocrinology, said: “Kids tend to stay indoors more these days and play on their computers instead of enjoying the fresh air. This means their Vitamin D levels are worse than in previous years.”

“A change in public health policy is required. Health professionals have been slow to deal with this problem, even though we have known about it for a while.”

“Some measures have been taken but the number of patients still presenting with symptoms of vitamin D deficiency shows we have a long way to go.”

Our main source of vitamin D is sunlight, through skin exposure. But it is also present in a small number of foods: oily fish such as salmon, mackerel, sardines, herring and – granny’s favourite: cod liver oil.

There are several high risk groups who are most in danger from suffering from deficiency including; people with skin pigmentation, those who use sunscreen or concealing clothing, being elderly or institutionalised, people who are obese, and those suffering from renal and liver disease.

Prof Pearce added: “We believe that a more robust approach to statutory food supplementation with vitamin D, for example in milk, is needed in the UK, as this measure has already been introduced successfully in many other countries in similar parts of the world.”

published on: 21st January 2010

About Nicholas Lovell

Nicholas is the founder of Gamesbrief, a blog dedicated to the business of games. It aims to be informative, authoritative and above all helpful to developers grappling with business strategy. He is the author of a growing list of books about making money in the games industry and other digital media, including How to Publish a Game and Design Rules for Free-to-Play Games, and Penguin-published title The Curve: thecurveonline.com
  • Thanks for the comments. I'm working on an even stronger rebuttal. (This was just based on reading the same facts the journalists had – the new one has some more research)

  • deftangel

    Great read, couldn't believe this made the front page of the Metro. Slow “news” day I guess.

  • bickle77

    I saw the article emblazoned across the front of the Metro. I'm kind of used to this kind of hysterical journalism now and I found the tenuous link between ricketts and video games mildly amusing. Cheap journalism on the front of a free newspaper.

  • Hadn't read the press release, but did read the research paper, which literally makes no claims whatsoever to do with games or computers at all. Utter nonsense, and horrible journalism that goes beyond misleading and into the realms of straight-up lies.