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Better gamers than hustlers

The rising popularity of computer games among children is often presented as a sign that they are turning into a generation of couch potatoes.

But the Gameboys and Playstations are helping to keep pupils away from an activity which may be far more damaging to their health - snooker.

The schools health education unit believes that the growing use of computer games is likely to be the reason why there has been a sharp decline in the numbers of 12 to 15-year-olds misspending their youth shooting pool, playing snooker and throwing darts.

The proportion of 14-year-olds playing snooker has dropped by around eight percentage points since 1996 to just over 20 per cent. In the same period the proportion playing computer games has increased by around 20 per cent, to nearly 50 per cent of girls and 70 per cent of boys.

Hurricane Higgins, Eric Bristow and Fast Eddie Felson have had to make room for heroes such as Super Mario and Lara Croft.

Researchers at the health unit believe this switch in interests may be a positive development for pupils' health. Its evidence shows that young people who play pool and snooker are significantly more likely than others to drink or smoke, partly because tobacco and alcohol are often available where the games are played.

Dr David Regis, director of the unit, said the increased interest in computer games would be worrying if it meant young people were more solitary, but it was not clear this was the case because the games were often a starting-point for conversations between boys.

Matt Porter, spokesman for the Professional Darts Corporation, said: "I think any sport is a wholesome recreational activity. Playing darts is more sociable that playing computer games."

A separate study of 3,500 parents by the charity Woolworth Kids First has found that far fewer of today's young people played conkers, marbles or hopscotch than their parents. But it also revealed that today's pupils were far more likely to play football, basketball and cricket in the playground than the older generation.

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