Video games, TV, gadgets: Are they safe for your child?


Children may get epileptic seizure after playing video games or watching television, movies for long periods, warns neurologist.

Moses* is 10 years old and a Standard Five pupil at a Nairobi school. He was at home  recently playing video games as he always does when he started experiencing blinding headaches. He was agitated and hysterical and nothing anyone could do helped to calm him down.

He soon began to have convulsions and seizures similar to those seen with epilepsy patients. Panicked, his mother rushed him to the hospital, where he was immediately admitted.

In days to come he would continue to have splitting headaches and seizures. None of the tests the doctor ordered showed the reason for the seizures or the headaches. He was treated with anti-seizure medication and kept under observation for several days until the seizures stopped.

The Journal of Emergency Medical Services (JEMS) also says children and young adults aged 8-24 with no known history of epilepsy have been known to suffer epileptic seizures after playing video games for long hours or watching certain types of movies. 

Like Moses, Tiffany* started having unexplained headaches suddenly one Sunday afternoon. Prior to the headaches, she was irritable and uncharacteristically aggressive. She appeared to be hallucinating and claimed to hear voices. She also had multiple convulsions and seizures. She was 16.

Tiffany told doctors that, prior to this incident, she had spent a lot of time on her phone chatting with her friends and on television watching movies. She was also studying for an exam and was stressed because of it.

Both Tiffany and Moses had no history of epilepsy and no known recent trauma to the head — factors that doctors say could cause a person to have headaches and even seizures.

Moses told doctors he had been playing a new video game that he got for his birthday for three days with breaks only for food and a little sleep. When the headaches began, he and an elder sibling were playing that game.

Researchers have identified a worrying and growing trend, where children and young adults between seven and 19 years are presenting with serious, yet unexplained, headaches, irritability and subsequently epileptic seizures.

Doctors link these to over-stimulation of the brain and exposure to light emitted by video games and TV screens, among other things.

According to Nairobi-based child neurologist Pauline Samia, video games can, in fact, provoke seizures, particularly in children – especially those predisposed to have epilepsy or have a history of epilepsy. Dr Samia says flashing images from video games, TV and disco lights, among other sources, can trigger a condition called photosensitive epilepsy (PSE).

“Children, especially boys with photosensitive epilepsy, may get a seizure after playing video games for long periods,” said Dr Samia, adding that fatigue, sleep deprivation, excitement or frustration can also contribute to it.

She said watching TV or playing games for longer than two hours a day reduces creativity and cognitive development in children.

According to the neurologist, exposure to too much excitement, also known as sensory overload, can cause epileptic seizures in children.

“Sensory overload may be understood as exposure to a stimulus at a frequency or intensity higher than an individual can comfortably cope with,” said Dr Samia.

She said some forms of sensory overload, including mental stress and strong emotions, have been known to cause seizures in children who already have epilepsy or have a genetic predisposition for epileptic seizures.

The Journal of Emergency Medical Services (JEMS) also says children and young adults aged 8-24 with no known history of epilepsy have been known to suffer epileptic seizures after playing video games for long hours or watching certain types of movies. 

It documents an incident where a healthy 24-year-old male was found slumped across his chair unconscious and having convulsions sfter playing a video game for long hours.

Studies have shown that video games, computer games and TV programmes produce “flicker stimulus”.

In many cases, the flicker is a range of calibrated flashes per second – a rate known to cause epileptic seizures. The distance between the subject and the screen can also be a factor. Typically, a distance of 1.5 metres produces flicker stimulus that can induce a seizure.

According to the JEMS article, recent attempts at minimising the dangers of certain TV and video game photic stimulation images have had varied success.

PSE while rare, is more common in children aged seven to 19 and affects more boys than girls because the former  tend to play video games more.

Those affected report seeing an “aura” or feeling particularly odd sensations prior to the seizure. The seizures may be generalised or focal, unilateral or bilateral. Situations where children tend to ‘zone out’ and appear to stare into space for long spells could be indicative of a seizure in progress.

Dr Samia said genetic factors and birth defects that cause a miswiring of the brain can put children at risk of PSE.

According to the Epilepsy Foundation, precipitating factors for video game-induced seizures include games using an interlaced video monitor, small hand-held liquid crystal displays and non-interlaced 70-Hertz arcade games.

There are many mechanisms by which video games may induce seizures, including photosensitivity; pattern sensitivity; emotional and cognitive excitation (excitement or frustration); and proprioceptive stimulation (movement/praxis).

Fatigue, sleep deprivation and prolonged playing are facilitating factors.

Only 70 per cent of patients with well-documented VGS are photosensitive on IPS. In the other one third of patients, appropriate IPS does not evoke a seizure.

Factors that could cause children to suffer from epileptic seizures:

  •  Stimulating images that take up a child’s complete field of vision (This happens when they watch TV too closely).

  •  Certain colours, such as blue and red.

  •  Rays of light seen through trees and bright lights like on a police siren or matatu with flashing lights.

  •  Disco lights.

  •  Camera flashes, florescent lights that flicker and fireworks.

Dos and Don’ts in case of seizure:

  •  Make the child lie on the ground or floor on their left side with the clothes loosened.

  •  Remove all potentially harmful objects from the vicinity of the child.

  •  No objects, food, liquids or medicine should be administered by mouth during the seizure as is can choke the child.

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