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Pokémon Go an Accidental Digital Health App? Not So Fast…

Over the past few weeks, social media has exploded with praise for the supposed health benefits of the recently released app, Pokémon Go.

An overnight sensation, Pokémon Go is a location-based, augmented reality game that allows players to find, capture, train, and battle virtual Pokémon. By combining smartphones’ GPS and camera features, the app places these virtual Pokémon in the real world, urging people to explore their communities and interact with others while gaming.

The app also requires players to walk certain distances before they can collect items at designated “Pokéstops” and hatch “Poké Eggs.” As the app evidently forces people to venture outside and engage in physical activity, many people are praising the game for its positive influence on their mental and physical health.

One Twitter user posted “Thanks to Pokémon Go, I walked 5 miles and made 8 new friends yesterday. This is the most active and social I have been in months.” Another user stated that “Pokémon Go may solve obesity and social anxiety in one app.”

There is no doubt that the app is stimulating physical activity by urging people to leave their homes and walk around their surrounding environments. Additionally, there is anecdotal evidence that the game is increasing social interactions by creating a sense of community at Pokéstops and local attractions.

However, some medical professionals feel that despite the claims of many players, it may not necessarily be improving their overall health.

Arshya Vahabzadeh MD | Photo courtesy of LinkedIn

Arshya Vahabzadeh MD | Photo courtesy of LinkedIn

“I’m excited that there are many positive reviews out there, but many questions still remain unanswered [because] there is no published research on the health benefits of Pokémon Go,” Dr. Arshya Vahabzadeh, a medically-trained expert on mental health and technology and the Director of Digital Health at Brain Power, said. “Exercise does help mental and physical health, but the fact that this app is causing people to move more, which anecdotally seems to be occurring, is only one sliver of what’s happening when people use the app.”

In other words, although Pokémon Go may be increasing exercise levels, we do not have enough information on the app to conclude whether it is truly beneficial to our health. There are many other facets of the game to consider, such as whether it triggers dangerous decisions, physical overexertion, behavioral changes, or technology overuse.

“Movement is only one part of engaging with this augmented reality game. The brain is engaged with the app, [people] are going into different neighborhoods, and players are putting [themselves] in potentially unsafe situations,” Dr. Vahabzadeh said. “It’s a game; it’s not supposed to be a health app.”

John Torous MD | Photo courtesy of LinkedIn

John Torous MD | Photo courtesy of LinkedIn

There are also concerns that the app may just be a temporary fad and its health effects short-lived.

“The fact that [Pokémon Go] makes people more active certainly suggests that there is good potential for health benefits. But, if fitness trackers are any indication, it’s that technology does not lead to long-term regular patterns of fitness,” Dr. John Torous, a Psychiatrist and Clinical Informatics Fellow at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, said. “The use of Pokémon Go and number of downloads has reportedly been going down. For all we know, this could be a giant bubble.”

As experts conduct research and collect data on the app, we will be able to definitively confirm or deny the health benefits of the increasingly popular app.

Anokhi Saklecha

Anokhi Saklecha

    Anokhi is an editorial intern at MedTech Boston and a student in the Medical Scholars program at the University of California, San Diego. She is extremely passionate about journalism and science and hopes to combine them in her future as a physician. In her free time, Anokhi loves dancing, baking, and hanging out with her friends.

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