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Scientists behind “games cause rickets” deny a specific link

By on January 22, 2010

Earlier today, a number of newspapers ran sensationalist headlines that claimed a causal link between games and rickets.

I tried to debunk the story simply by reading the same press release and publicly-available extract available to the professional journalists at Metro and the Times who wrote this sensationalist and deeply wrong story. (You can read that debunking at “Games cause rickets” – a thorough debunking).

But then I thought I’d go one better. I contacted the two scientists behind the report: Professor Simon Pearce, Professor of Endocrinology at the Institute of Human Genetics at Newcastle University and Dr Timothy Cheetham, Consultant/Senior Lecturer, also at Newcastle University and at the Royal Victoria Infirmary. (You can read the email I sent in full below).

Isn’t that what paid journalists should have done?

They both got back to me within a few hours. Their comments were illuminating.

Dr Cheetham said:

“I understand METRO has said that we have linked computers to rickets, whereas we are actually saying lack of outdoor activity in childhood is a risk for poor D nutritional state.”

He then added, pretty unequivocally in my view:

“We do not say that gaming causes rickets”

Professor Pearce confirmed my understanding of his research (set out in the email below) and added:

The average age of a child with rickets is around 20 months old: too young to use a keyboard and mouse!”

He added that staying inside and playing Monopoly or watching television could prevent you getting enough Vitamin D, and there was nothing specific about gaming in the study.

But there is an even more important issue here. The study highlights the difficulties of people with dark skin synthesising enough Vitamin D from the British weather. It also highlights the dangers of overzealous parents slapping sunscreen on their children at the first hint of sunshine.

“What we are trying to say is that the vitamin D status of older kids and teenagers is poor, because they tend to play outdoors less. Other factors that put kids at risk are obsessional use of sunblock; we would like to see sunblock being applied after the kid has been outside for 20 or 30 minutes, not before they leave the house. Nevertheless, sunlight is an imperfect solution – as if you are Asian and African ancestry there isn’t really enough sun in the UK for your skin to make enough vitamin D, so food supplementation is our recommendation.”

So there are two really important health messages here, aimed at sunblock-obsessed parents and people of Asian and African ancestry.

But that was ignored in order to make a sensationalist claim about games.

That doesn’t just make me angry because it maligns games; it makes me angry that these papers preferred sensation to really important health messages.


Dear Professor Pearce/Dr Cheetham*

You may have seen that furore in the press relating to your recent BMJ article and (more likely in my opinion), the press release that accompanied it.

Mainstream journalist appear to have taken a single quote (“Kids tend to stay indoors more these days and play on their computers instead of enjoying the fresh air”) and turned it into the thrust of the article.

I am no scientist, and have not had access to the BMJ article. However, my understanding of your arguments are:

  • Rickets is on the increase in the Newcastle area
  • Rickets is an entirely preventable disease that simply needs adequate Vitamin D
  • Adding Vitamin D to milk and other products would be a sensible public health response.

However, I don’t see any scientific evidence that:

  • Children who play computer games have a higher incidence of rickets
  • That playing computer games correlates with going outside less, compared with, for example, having two working parents, not having access to playing fields, a culture of fear that discourages children from playing outside unsupervised or a dozen other possible causal factors.

I am keen to write a rebuttal of the sensationalist headlines. I would very much appreciate it if you could confirm that your study focused on the entirely preventable disease of rickets and its causes, together with an appropriate public health response, and that the link between computer games and vitamin D deficiency was never part of the study.

Of course, if I’m wrong on this, I’d also like to know. As a gamer and a parent, if the link is proven, I would very much like to know that and will write about it.

I look forward to your response.

Yours sincerely

Nicholas Lovell

*I wrote to them both separately, and they answered separately

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: