Can gaming kill children with undiagnosed heart issues?

By October 13, 2022 Health

We came across the following post on Reddit:

The post claims that playing video games can kill children with undiagnosed heart issues, referencing an article from Sky News. This news had been published widely across numerous news sites, with Sky News being the most prominent.

The Sky article made the claim that scientists had found a pattern among children who lose consciousness while playing electronic games that suggested undiagnosed heart conditions, and that ‘Call of Duty-style multiplayer war games were the most frequent trigger for such episodes’.

When we looked up the origins of the news, we found that it indeed linked to a medical study published in the Heart Rhythm journal titled ‘Life-threatening cardiac arrhythmia and sudden death during electronic gaming: An international case series and systematic review’.

Some Risks, No Reward

In the journal article, the researchers report that they identified twenty-two children aged 7 to 16 who had experienced abnormal heart rhythm – leading to the loss of consciousness – while playing video games; six of them (27%) experienced cardiac arrest, and four (19%) died suddenly.

The article further relates that seven (31%) of the twenty-two had a prior diagnosis for heart conditions, and a further twelve (54%) were diagnosed with them afterwards.

The article also adds that for the thirteen children for whom the game details were known, eight (62%) were war games.

While these results validate most of the details in the news article, the limitations of the study must be noted. For one, the incidence rate of these events is not known as the study is of ‘opt-in’ nature.

While this could mean an underestimation of case numbers, the researchers note that ‘the incidence appears to be low’. Even so, they recommend that any loss of consciousness among children while playing video games be investigated thoroughly as it often reveals underlying heart conditions.

Furthermore, while most children appeared to be playing war games, this may reflect the bias of sample due to the popularity of the game genre. In 2021, three of the top ten games in the US by dollar sales were war games, and the top two games were both Call of Duty games.

Another detail carried in the journal article is that gaming is not the only potential trigger for children with heart conditions. The researchers note that while competitive sport and certain high-risk activities are recognised to trigger heart issues, electronic gaming is not typically considered a risky activity and may even be ‘encouraged under the false premise that it may represent a safe alternative’.

In their conclusion, the researchers hope to correct this perception by reporting that electronic gaming can precipitate heart issues, just like sports and other activities. They state that ‘participation in exciting and emotionally charged activities such as electronic gaming’ should be reported in the clinical history of patients if it causes loss of consciousness, and that ‘counselling regarding safe participation in electronic gaming should be considered’ after a diagnosis.

Gaming the Headlines

While Sky’s reporting is accurate, the headline of the article has been sensationalised to exaggerate the lethality of gaming to children with heart conditions. Sky’s article also specifies the popular multiplayer war game Call of Duty, which is not mentioned in the study.

For comparison, Sky’s ‘gaming can kill’ headline can be contrasted against that from Medscape, a website owned by WebMD that provides medical information for clinicians:

As such, while it is true that gaming can trigger heart conditions in children that result in death, the Sky News headline has been sensationalised to exaggerate the risk of death directly caused by gaming.

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