As the gamer generation moves steadily away from traditional media, it’s created some strange new currents in the flow of information. While thousands of eager bloggers and online writers pore over topics such as Diablo 3‘s color palette or who’s winning the console war, other topics that seem more old-fashioned have fallen by the wayside. Health coverage may be one of them.

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Three months ago, the online edition of the journal Pediatrics published a study that could have important implications for gamers’ health and quality of life. Most gaming media did not report on it. Others lashed out at the study, even while their criticism suggested they either didn’t read it or didn’t understand it. The flawed coverage points out two troubling problems with new media: 1) Highly specialized websites don’t provide the kind of general information that traditional media does, and 2) The speed and volume of online content production often means sources are not properly verified.

The study in question concerned a link between videogaming and vitamin D deficiency in American children and adolescents. “There was a very strong correlation between the number of hours that somebody – be that a child or adolescent – spent in front of a screen and vitamin D deficiency,” says Dr. Michal Melamed, an Assistant Professor in the Departments of Medicine and of Epidemiology and Population Health at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine of Yeshiva University in New York City. A vitamin D research specialist, she led the five-person team whose paper, “Prevalence and Associations of 25-Hydroxyvitamin D Deficiency in US Children: NHANES 2001-2004,” drew national attention from American news media (and The Colbert Report) upon its publication.

Melamed’s study described vitamin D levels in Americans aged 1 to 21 by analyzing data from the nationally representative National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES) obtained between 2001 and 2004 by the National Center for Health Statistics. In preparing the nine-page paper, Melamed and her team checked vitamin D levels in 6,275 children and adolescents surveyed for NHANES and looked for factors associated with low levels. They found nine percent of those surveyed (about 7.6 million children nationwide) had deficient vitamin D levels, while a further 61 percent (or 50.8 million nationwide) had insufficient levels. Among those more likely to have lower vitamin D levels were older children, girls, non-Hispanic blacks, Mexican Americans, Americans of other races, those born outside of the U.S., those from lower income families, obese children and those “who spent more time watching television, playing videogames, or using computers.”

In a phone interview, Melamed explains playing videogames doesn’t cause low vitamin D levels. It’s the decreased time kids spend outdoors that does, since a primary source of vitamin D is sunlight. “If gamers spend an hour a day outside and then go home for five hours and play videogames, I think that’s okay,” she says. “I think we’re more worried about the people who don’t do the one hour of outdoor physical activity, but do the gaming without sun exposure.”

Melamed’s study used four categories to distinguish the time kids spent in front of a screen per day: none, less than two hours, three to four hours or more than four hours. More screen time correlated with a stronger likelihood of low vitamin D levels, and those who spent more than four hours in front of a screen were 60-percent more likely to have low vitamin D levels. Low vitamin D levels are associated with risk factors for heart disease, psychiatric disorders like depression and bone-related problems such as rickets.

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If you read about the study on one of the few gaming sites that covered it, you could be forgiven for thinking that researchers set out to vilify gaming. Take, for example, an August 3 blog post on Destructoid with the headline “Games blamed for vitamin D deficiency.” The author, Dale North, was very critical of the research. “Games are blamed for everything else, why not low vitamin D levels in U.S. children?” he asked. “It’s not games’ fault if you don’t drink milk or go outside!”

But North’s anger was based on reports of the study that came from the end of an online information chain that resembled a game of Telephone. With seemingly no one reading the study itself, its actual findings were obscured.

The controversy started not with Melamed’s report, but with a Washington Post write-up of its findings. In a long article headlined “Millions of Children In U.S. Found to Be Lacking Vitamin D,” a Post reporter wrote, “The researchers and others blamed the low levels on a combination of factors, including children spending more time watching television and playing videogames instead of going outside.”

The word “blame” quickly caught on. A short syndicated United Press article incorporating parts of the Washington Post story bore the headline “TV, video games blamed for low vitamin D” and emphasized the link with TV and games as though they were the study’s focus. That article was then reprinted by the Times of the Internet website, which became the source for numerous blog posts, including North’s Destructoid piece, one on Koku Gamer and one on GamePolitics, all of which echoed the word “blame.” Neither the study itself nor an Albert Einstein College press release used the word; instead, they referred to indoor entertainment only as an associated factor in low vitamin D levels.

Melamed’s study was misinterpreted as having an anti-videogames agenda, when the researchers only meant to inform people about a possible health concern. Melamed herself has a 5-year-old boy who games for an hour or so every day, she says. “I don’t think that the videogaming itself is bad, but that in exclusion of other activities is what we worry about.”

Gaming media’s oversimplifications about the study suggest bloggers relied entirely on third- or fourth-hand sources that distorted the report’s conclusions. When asked how GamePolitics verifies information, News Editor Pete Gallagher says, “Whenever possible we attempt to read the original report. Whether we can or cannot read the source report, we link to all the resources used to cover the topic.” Destructoid’s North says he based his opinions “mostly” on the Times of the Internet article and read “some” of the actual study. But both sites list the Times of the Internet as their only source.

That some in the gaming media treated Melamed’s study like a punching bag may not be surprising, considering how often gamers feel forced to defend their hobby against doctors from the social sciences. The hyperbolic claims of many psychologists, criminologists and sociologists have undoubtedly made gamers wary of any scientists who may seem to be criticizing gaming. But however justified their skepticism may be, having writers with a bias against scientists reporting about medical science is not healthy.

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Gaming sites missed an opportunity to inform their readers about a potential health risk that is both easily avoided and treated, but can lead to bad consequences if ignored. It’s especially disheartening since getting good health information can make a real difference in a person’s life. One Destructoid commenter, Projectexodus, shared his positive experience with being diagnosed with vitamin D deficiency and successfully treating the condition. “Not too long ago, I found out that I suffered from vitamin D deficiency. … So lately I’ve been taking supplements and going through a diet change, while occacionally [sic] sitting on my porch in the sunlight. The changes that have happened are fenomenal! [sic] I’m more motivated, vigorous, active, focused, positive, and my skin is cleaner!”

A doctor can measure vitamin D levels with a blood test and make recommendations based on that. To avoid deficiencies, Melamed suggests taking daily multivitamins (“which are available in delicious gummi flavors,” she adds). Only four percent of the NHANES subjects did so. Other simple life changes can also help. “Drink milk instead of soda or a sugar drink,” she says. “Or go out in the sun for 15 minutes.”

Melamed says media reports about America’s low vitamin D levels are contributing to the solution by raising awareness. She noticed a difference in her own life when her pediatrician recommended vitamin D for her 1-year-old girl, something never discussed while her 5-year-old was the same age. “I was actually a little bit worried about all the pediatricians being upset with all of the patients coming to them asking about vitamin D,” Melamed says. “But I told my pediatrician about it and she was like, ‘Oh, I think it’s great. I think people need to be more aware of it.'”

Gaming media chose not to raise awareness of Melamed’s study among gamers. Those that discussed it did so mostly with scorn, giving the impression that potential health risks associated with gaming should be ridiculed rather than investigated. As many people continue to turn to blogs and specialist websites for their news, those providers may want to re-evaluate their journalistic obligations. With so many devoted readers, a more considered kind of gaming journalism could play an important role in shaping a healthier generation of gamers.

Chris LaVigne contributes regularly to The Escapist. He’s also written about flaws in the way social scientists study videogames and how newspapers misrepresent videogame research.

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