Do the Health Benefits of Pokémon Go Outweigh the Risks?

Miriam E Tucker

August 10, 2016

The new game Pokémon Go is certainly a popular craze, but is it good for your health?

Pokémon Go involves the use of a smartphone app in a virtual scavenger hunt for cartoon characters, but in real locations. Glasgow general practitioner and BMJ columnist Dr Margaret McCartney believes the game's health benefits may outweigh its well-documented risks.

"Most health apps that promote physical activity tend to get users who want to be healthy. Pokémon Go isn't marketed as a health app, but players still end up doing a lot of walking," Dr McCartney writes in her weekly GP column, published online August 9.

"The possibilities for apps to make the streets an active, reclaimed playground in which to have interconnected fun are boundless. Increased physical activity is a tantalizing side effect. Game on."

She acknowledges some of the game's downsides, including the fact that Pokémon hunters have had to be rescued by emergency services from the sea and caves. Moreover, criminals can easily target the game's gathering spots. Teenage players in London have been robbed of their phones at gunpoint, and real shootouts have involved US players, she says.

In the United Kingdom, the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children has published a parents' guide and an open letter to the game's creator, Nintendo, expressing concern that the game lacks adequate protection to keep children from becoming targets while playing.

"Sure: Pokémon Go can and should be made safer. Like most things, playing it has a mix of benefit and risk," Dr McCartney writes, noting that she's met other local people while out playing the game. "In our modern online lives we all need real-life connectivity, and the internet can facilitate that."

And the health benefits might not be obvious, she says. "We never hear about the things that didn't happen: heart attacks prevented through more exercise, or vitamin D deficiency that geeks have avoided, blinking in the sunlight while catching a Pikachu monster."

Asked to comment, Mohammad H Forouzanfar, MD, PhD, assistant professor of global health at the University of Washington, Seattle — and senior author of another paper published in the same issue of the BMJ quantifying the benefits of physical activity in chronic disease prevention — told Medscape Medical News: "These applications may encourage people to get off the couch and be more active, but their efficiency, safety, and sustainability still need to be evaluated."

Still, he said, "Technology can promote sustainable improvement in lifestyle, and some positive aspects of this game can motivate people to be more active, while enjoying the reward and joy the activity has to offer."

Dr McCartney is occasionally paid for time, travel, and accommodation to give talks or have locum fees paid to allow her to give talks but never for any pharmaceutical or public-relations company. Dr Forouzanfar has no relevant financial relationships.

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BMJ. Published August 9, 2016. Article

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