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Q:  The manual for my teenage son’s favorite video game contains a warning that says that some games cause seizures and that parents should watch for seizure symptoms or ask their children if they’ve experienced any symptoms while playing.  I can’t monitor every minute of game play, and if I asked my son about it, I’m not sure he would admit any symptoms if he thought it might lead me to limit his game time.  How worried should I be?
Stressed about Seizures in Boston, MA

A:  Dear Stressed about Seizures: 

Wow, I’m impressed that you actually read the “fine print.” Most people don’t do this and it can be important. 

The reason these seizure warnings started to be included on video games is because in Japan in 1997, 700 children suffered seizures while watching this scene in an episode of Pokemon.  Doctors believe it was the rapid flashing of lights and colors that triggered the seizures in children who were already predisposed to what is known as photosensitive epilepsy. Since video games may include similar flashes of light, the warning about seizures started to be included on packages. The warnings are there so that manufacturers will be protected against lawsuits; you may notice fine-print warnings about other side-effects on cans of soda or bottles of aspirin — it's the same idea.  

I'm guessing that you and other readers of this blog picture seizures as convulsions where muscles stiffen or jerk out of control.  But it's important to know that there are many types of seizures, and they can be as subtle as a kid staring into space or at a screen without much movement, and not responding to your voice.  Here is an example of what this kind of seizure looks like. 

The number of children predisposed to photosensitive seizures is very small and the number of those who will actually have seizures triggered by television or video games is even smaller.  However, there is not any easy way for a parent to determine whether your child is at risk. So I offer the following recommendations: 

  • Try to limit your child‘s screen time (video or TV) to 1 hour at a sitting and a total of 2 hours per day. 
  • Place the television/video game in a “public” place so you can periodically check on your child while he plays. 
  • If possible, the first time your child plays a new game, watch or play with him/her.  You will be able to watch his/her responses to the game.  To keep an eye on possible seizure symptoms, look to see if your child goes through periods of staring, where they aren't moving their bodies and aren't responding to you.  If you notice this, I recommend you call your doctor and eliminate all electronic screen time until your son has been evaluated. 
  • If your child is becoming addicted to the games or television, becoming unreasonably upset when you ask him to turn it off, you may want to watch closely to ensure he is not having subtle seizures.  The seizures can inhibit the children from doing well in the game, thus frustrating the child so he wants to do it again and again until he masters it. 

I also recommend that you read this story from a woman whose daughter was having seizures in response to computer games; she wanted to tell her story to let other people know what they faced and how they got help.

Enjoy your media and use them wisely,
The Mediatrician

4 Responses to “Will video games cause seizures in my children?”

  1. Michelle bounsana

    My son is 3yrs old and his aunt got him a psp and a couple of Erated games and he plays the UP game most and he plays it over and over can this give him siezures oh and he watches a little too much cartoons how can I limit the time he plays his game and watches t.v I give him an option of either t.v or game I make him choose one and he does ok with tht but with me taking the game away or changing the channel he throws a huuuuge fit

    Reply
  2. Henry

    My question is what if a child has been playing most games just fine? Is that a good indicator that the child does well with video games? Honestly, I get the impression that these warnings are overblown simply because of what happened with the Pokémon Episode. From what I read it is even safe to watch that clip digitally, as the signals were analogue.

    However, I do hope that one day parents have better assurance from popular games going through safety test. Especially, with these ‘warnings’ constantly in your face taking the fun out of everything. Me parent even wants to be concerned with such things unless absolutely necessary.

    Reply
  3. Giselle

    Ive never heard of this condition until now.
    My question is how can you feel
    reassured that video games are safe/ok?

    Especially, after reading Jessica soladar video games site. I mean what if your child has been playing video games for about an hour a day, for over a year, or even several years, and has been exposed to flashy things like fireworks.. would that mean your child likely doesn’t have the issue?

    That’s the part that’s fuzzy to me. We’re talking about seizures here, which supposedly can be “subtle” according to Jessica soladar on her video games website. (Plus, she says the most at risk are *without* epilepsy)

    Nintendo’s warnings even go as far as to state that you “can” have a seizure playing games even if you’ve never had one before with shedding any future light. But yet doesn’t state if it’s the norm, or something so rare that it’s not worth the concern. That statement makes no sense either, why would an otherwise healthy individual, just have a random seizure playing a game, (unless they or were maybe senselessly doing something ridiculous outside of the norm) I.e playing a game for days upon days for 6 hours straight, and not eating, or taking breaks, etc.

    So I thought you had to have a rare condition known as photosensitive epilepsy, in order for video games and TVs to cause potential issues. As a parent what am I to make of that? Perhaps you can help clear some of this up.

    Reply

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