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Pokémon Go: Health App or Safety Risk?

“Watch out!” I yell as a friend nearly walks out into traffic, eyes focused on his cell phone. You may have noticed more people walking around in this condition – passively enjoying summer and the outdoors and fully engrossed in their cell phones.

laureninpokemongofinal.pngAsk any of them what they’re doing. Their answer: “Catching ‘em all” by playing Pokémon Go. According to a 2016 SurveyMonkey, Pokémon Go is the largest mobile game in US history with 21 million daily active users, beating Candy Crush Saga’s popularity (which peaked at 20 million). 

I grew up in the 90’s with a little brother. Pokemon, as a cartoon show and trading card game, was all the rage in my house. Now, that nostalgia has obviously returned with a vengeance for people my age and has captured the attention of the younger generation.

In Pokémon Go, you are a trainer tasked with catching cartoon monsters (Pokémon) with a flick of your finger, using them to fight battles at “gyms” and collecting special items as you walk around. Parks, landmarks and other public places serve as locations to find and battle Pokémon - think of it as Google Maps “gamified”.

So here’s the Poké-conundrum especially for parents. On the one hand, Pokémon Go is being touted as an “unintentional” health app. It gets people out of the house and exercising by walking certain distances to complete tasks like hatching eggs and finding new Pokémon. Plus, there’s the added bonus of exploration - players are trekking to new places in their neighborhood they might never see and are learning more about where they live.

On the other hand, the game poses some health risks. Players are distracted by the app, losing sight of what’s around them and tripping, walking into walls, traffic, even other people. Game developer Niantic smartly uses the app’s loading screen to warn players about distracted driving and walking. It reads: “Remember to be alert at all times. Stay aware of your surroundings.” But that warning isn’t being heeded by every player. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has warned drivers not to play the game while on the road. The National Safety Council is urging pedestrians to use caution.

flareonfinal.pngI talked with Dr. Eric Ingerowski, pediatrician and contributor to VisualDx, about what parents should know about Pokémon Go. He has seen first-hand both sides of the debate. “I have seen several patients that have walked more in the last week than they have all year but I have also seen numerous smashed phone screens because of players walking into trees or walls. I have seen numerous sunburns that patients have attributed to prolonged Pokémon expeditions without proper sun protection. I had one patient who had become temporarily lost because his phone battery died and he did not know exactly where he was.”

Ingerowski also warns about outside threats. “The exploratory nature of this game puts kids at risk by encouraging them to travel outside of their usual safe zone – often without parent’s permission or knowledge.  Because some Pokémon are located in woods or fields, exposure to ticks and other disease carrying insects may increase.  There are also concerns that the ‘gyms’ and other locations players travel to may be targeted by pedophiles, thieves, or by others with nefarious intent.“

His advice? Simple communication. Parents need to be informed about this game and actively discuss the risks and benefits with their children. Children should play in groups, always get parental permission when venturing out and let parents know where they’re heading.

Pokémon Go can be a fun, healthy way to get exercise and socialize as long as everyone plays safely.

About the Author

laurenheadshotsmall.pngLauren MacDonough is the Community Engagement Coordinator at VisualDx. Lauren holds a Bachelor of Science in Broadcast Journalism from Syracuse University and is completing her Master's degree in Integrated Marketing Communications at Nazareth College. She enjoys spending her free time as an actor/singer/dancer in Rochester, NY.

About VisualDx

VisualDx is an award-winning diagnostic clinical decision support system that has become the standard electronic resource at more than half of U.S. medical schools and more than 1,500 hospitals and institutions nationwide.  VisualDx combines clinical search with the world's best medical image library, plus medical knowledge from experts to help with diagnosis, treatment, self-education, and patient communication. Expanding to provide diagnostic decision support across General Medicine, the new VisualDx brings increased speed and accuracy to the art of diagnosis. Learn more at www.visualdx.com.

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