Will video games cause seizures in my children?

Will video games cause seizures in my children? 150 150 Mediatrics

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