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$3.3 million grant to help children stay active with virtual reality

Kathryn Kao

February 1, 2018

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Over the years, children have grown increasingly inactive, especially with the rise and accessibility of technology.

However, thanks to a new $3.3 million grant from the National Institutes of Health, an interdisciplinary team of University of Georgia researchers led by Grace Ahn, an associate professor in UGA's Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication, will introduce a new virtual reality system to several afterschool programs to help promote physical activity among children ages 6 to 10 year olds.

"There is a bit of a paradox where technology and video games have clearly given more sedentary options for kids to be mentally engaged, but not physically," said Michael Schmidt, an associate professor in the College of Education's department of kinesiology and the study's co-investigator. "But here, instead of saying technology is bad, we want to learn how can we use it to promote physical activity. Clearly, there are things about technology that are captivating for kids."

The five-year study will determine whether interacting with a virtual pet as a reward after reaching a set physical activity goal helps to increase and maintain physical activity among children. Not only will the children wear a personal fitness tracker to monitor the rigor of their movement, but they will also receive social support from their parents through the virtual pet kiosk.

By giving parents access to the system, they can simultaneously support and check on their children's physical activity progress from work or home. Parents will receive updates from the kiosk and be able to leave comments for their children on the screen.

"It's interesting because we're testing this new area where you can interact and have this virtual pet that is supposed to mimic human-to-human interaction and motivate the children to set goals," said Schmidt. "But, we're also really focusing on the parent-to-child interaction. Social support between the parent and child is ultimately what I think we're trying to change in addition to getting the kids intrinsically motivated for activity."

While past studies have used rewards as interventions in physical health, many have been extrinsic in nature resulting in children abandoning their previous behavior when the rewards are taken away. These interventions may even have a negative effect with children exercising even less than they did previously because no reward is given.

Schmidt, along with the study's team of interdisciplinary researchers, hope that making parents a key component in the study will help children stay motivated beyond the intervention phase.

"We are presenting an intervention that allows them to be involved and that allows their children to be involved," said Ahn, the principal investigator of the study. "We see a lot of excitement and willingness to take part in this."

A pilot version of the study using the virtual pet kiosk will begin this spring, while official data collection starts in the fall.

With a trial period of three months, the study includes a total of 720 children and their parents. When the program is complete, a three-month, six-month and 12-month follow-up will be conducted to see if any changes in the children's physical activity persist over time.

Afterwards, the results of the intervention will be compared with a control group of 360 children and parents who were given physical fitness trackers, but not the virtual pet kiosk or the parental interaction.

With inactive adolescents exhibiting higher lipid and glucose levels as well as higher risks of Type 2 diabetes, Schmidt said that encouraging children to stay physically active at a younger age will help them maintain a healthier, more active lifestyle down the road.

"Technology is changing both things like the virtual pet system and wearable tech," said Schmidt. "The challenge of wearable technology is that it moves at a very fast pace; and with 6 to 10 year olds, giving them some fun activities will help them stay active."

Other UGA researchers on the grant include: Kyle Johnsen, associate professor of the School of Electrical and Computer Engineering in the College of Engineering; Stephen Rathbun, professor in the department of epidemiology and biostatistics in the College of Public Health; Leann Birch, the William P. "Bill" Flatt Childhood Obesity Professor in the College of Family and Consumer Sciences; and Margaret O'Brien Caughy, the Georgia Athletic Association Professor in Family Health Disparities in the College of Family and Consumer Sciences.