Fact or Myth: playing video games while sick is bad for your kids

A couple of days ago I found an interesting post on my country’s subreddit, where people shared the most common childhood myths they remember growing up with. These were things that our parents, grandparents, and uncles, would say to us to discourage certain things. It was a fun read because I was familiar with most of them. I don’t know how popular these are in other places, but they seemed quite common throughout Portugal.

A few of my favorites were:

  • don’t swim/take a bath after eating, it can stop your digestion and you can die (wait at least 3 hours!!) – also, no icecream during that time. Addendum: if you eat anything (even a small grape) the time counter restarts πŸ˜€
  • don’t shave after eating (same reasons)
  • don’t swallow gum, it will glue to your stomach and kill you (funny how so many things kill you)
  • Eating oranges at night will make you sick (or, again, kill you)
  • Catching cold or rain will make you sick
  • Don’t drink water with melon
  • Getting a university degree will set you up for life (ok, dark humor on this one)

Another one I dealt with quite a few times when I was younger, was the fact that when I was sick, it was forbidden to watch tv or play video games because I wouldn’t recover as well as if I just rested.

Now, I am pretty sure many of these “myths” have some truth in them, even though most are probably a bit too exaggerated just to help get the point across. But I was curious about the relationship between screen time and recovering from a cold.

As a kid, I loved staying at home. Getting sick meant not going to school and staying at home to do whatever I wanted to do. I understand that, from my parent’s perspective, if I was allowed to enjoy and have fun while sick, I might end up getting “sick” more often πŸ˜‰ So, how much truth is in that?

This issue recently popped up because of my own daughter getting sick and having a fever. While I was on the couch playing a video game with my older daughter, the younger, sick, sibling was next to me also watching the tv and wanting to play.

Fever is something that usually doesn’t scare me. More important than measuring a number (is it bad if it’s 38.5C? what about 38.0? or 39?), is the state the person is in. I’ve witnessed my own kids being perfectly fine and playful with high 38s, and, on other occasions, being more prostrated and weak with lower temperatures. Common sense and good observation should prevail here, imho, instead of a cold, numerical analysis.

So, if you consider that you are feeling well (even though recovering from sickness), is screen time where you are having fun, a bad thing? Does it hurt or slow-down recovery?

I decided I wanted to address this doubt and come to the bottom of it.

For my own research, I tried different search terms (and search engines) to land on different pages of opposing views. Because, as we all know (or should), it’s quite easy to find content that you want to find (the so-called confirmation bias).

I am making a distinction between playing video games and watching TV. I tend to prefer video games to TV because TV is a very passive activity that creates a more “numb” state. We do allow our kids to watch TV, but only a pre-selected set of cartoons or shows that we find positive/educational and only a limited set of time (30-40min max). On the other hand, video games (the good ones, of course), are active, they stimulate the brain, develop skills, involve you being part of a story, and can even make you move! (yes, I just got a Switch with some cool physical games).

I tried to get information from a varied set of sources, from the mom-and-pop blog to medical journals. I also browsed quite a few discussion forums where people would ask this same question (I am sick with X, can I play games?) and others would reply based on their own experience. This was interesting because you get to see how the results vary so much from person to person. Some with a straight ‘NO’ and others with the extreme opposite. I found this reply quite funny:

“I have an open stomach right now with dressing covering it and here I am playing Spec Ops: The Line
So yes, ALWAYS.”

Let me then distill all that I could find, in the way I have summarized it in my head (feel free to rebuke if you disagree, but back it up ;))

  • There’s nothing inherently wrong with having sick people (kids or not) playing active and positive video games
  • In many cases, these are even beneficial as they can help deal with pain or go through boring times at home (especially when you are stuck for several days!)
  • Games provide a way to keep an engaged, active brain, learning and developing skills. Softer or calmer games can provide an environment to relax and provide some psychological “comfort” during troublesome times.
  • The main “cons” of video games during sickness are not about the games themselves, but the dangers of losing touch with important physical needs (sleep, rest, hydration). The fault here is the lack of proper parenting and supervision, not the video games. This is where kids need help because they can easily get absorbed in something they really like and lose track of reality. Make sure they are resting at appropriate times (depending on the type of sickness and age), drinking a lot, and eating healthy. In other words, as a parent, pay attention. Video games are not a nanny πŸ™‚
  • If you trust your child, let it also guide you on what is ok or not. A truly sick child with a bad headache will hardly want to be staring at a tv.

To finish off here is another comment from a forum. I think it sums it up quite well and brings us back to my initial observation on how to evaluate how bad a fever really is:

“Actually it is like a sickness level indicator for me, “I feel so bad that I cannot even play video games” or “I only need to rest a bit, might as well play video games while resting.”

Bonus: Can sitting too close to the TV damage your eyes? “The TV myth may have started in the 1960s, and at that time, it may have been true. Some early color TV sets emitted high amounts of radiation that could have caused eye damage, but this problem has long been remedied, and today’s TV and computer monitors are relatively safe”. The issue is how many hours you watch it, and what other activities your eyes do, not how close or how far you are from the screen.

Some references from my research:

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