We’ve been tracking some wild and unsubstantiated claims of health benefits from the use of the Pokémon Go app. A quick web search turns up thousands of articles with headlines that read more like advertising than journalism – making claims about impact on obesity, type 2 diabetes, anxiety, depression, and more.
Many of these stories relied on anecdotes, often single anecdotes, often pulled from social media.
A university news release made the unsubstantiated claim that “Real-life positive health consequences of playing Pokémon Go are happening across the nation.”
Uh-oh: A study that doesn’t actually exist
But the icing on the cake of hype is a story posted by Nature World News headlined, “‘Pokémon Go’ Could Help Prevent Type 2 Diabetes, Study Finds.” In the text of the story, it states: “According to the study, ‘Pokémon Go’ users are leaving their homes to walk for miles by just playing the game, engaging in intense physical activity without them noticing.”
Especially since there was no study.
The story was based on a University of Leicester news release that never mentioned a new study. It did include the sweeping claim that “Pokémon Go could ease Type 2 diabetes burden.” But the basis for the release was not a study, but mere speculation by a researcher in response to people going ape over the app. The researcher was quoted: “If there is something out there which is getting people off the sofa and pounding the streets then this game could be an innovative solution for rising obesity levels.”
Yes – “if there is something out there” it “could be an innovative solution.” IF and COULD BE are the operative words. Nowhere did the news release state that this was based on a study. Because there was none.
Consumers and patients must learn to be skeptical and analytical about any claim anytime from anyone that begins, “A new study finds…..”
First, ask yourself if there was even a study. The writer may neglect to tell you that, and, worse, may even mislead you into thinking there was one.
It is clear that anecdotes are piling up about some people using the app to get out and exercise more.
But let’s not overstate the evidence about benefits that are “real…amazing…unexpectedly great…(for) everyone.” And journalists, please remember that it’s your responsibility to independently vet claims about new ideas – not to serve as stenographer for any researcher or any university PR person who finds a way to get publicity by weighing in on a fad.
As an example of how this can be done, read a Vox story that raised caveats and reminders about what’s not known about the use of the app–“an unlikely fix for the obesity epidemic…surge in use may be temporary…reviews of evidence on video games designed to get people active and improve health reveal a mixed picture of their effectiveness.”
4 experts’ comments
And here’s what journalists might have found if they simply looked for independent analysts:
Hat tip to Ivan Oransky of MedPage Today for pointing us toward http://www.obesityandenergetics.org – and to that website, for capturing the “what is it really a study?” episode.