Do Video Games Cause ADHD?

The simple answer is no: playing video games will never “cause” a child to develop the symptoms of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder. While we will detail research that demonstrates why video games do not cause ADHD in parts 2 and 3 of this series, today I’d like to discuss some of the reasons why people think that gaming can lead to ADHD.

While I can’t speak for those of you reading this article, I can definitively tell you that I have a shorter attention span than I did 20 years ago. That was before the world of the Internet, cable television with hundreds of channels, thousands of on-demand movies, an iPod with 5000 songs to select from, and a smartphone that never leaves my side. While I may not skit from one technology to another, there is so much happening in each place (think channel surfing) that it is near impossible to focus on one thing for too long. Even while I’m engaged with 2 of my favorite focused activities (reading books and watching football), I find myself getting up to check something on the Internet, or switching channels to catch another game during commercials. Better yet,on Sundays I can watch the NFL Red Zone, which instantaneously takes me to the most exciting parts of as many as 10 games at a time.

There is evidence indicating that fast-paced, short clips of information, such as is seen on Sesame Street (and in many popular video games), is more likely to be related to attention difficulties than watching slower-paced television shows such as Mr. Rogers. This type of information might be best understood in light of some of the cultural observations we make today. Individuals, with or without attention problems,  are frequently bored with the mundane. Many are looking for higher and higher levels of stimulation, whether that be in the form of watching the newest action-based movie, abusing substances, or engaging in extreme sports. Popular video games fit as one more example of highly-stimulating, interactive tasks that capture the attention of players.

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Does this mean that individuals are less likely to sustain attention to more mundane tasks such as reading or listening to a lecture from a teacher? Probably. When we step back and examine modern day cultures in the the Western world, we see societies with short attention spans, whether it be in the form of the multi-tasking individual, or in our culture that loves one politician today, and another tomorrow. In fact, our easily distracted culture is likely to reduce the attention span of everybody, not just those with ADHD. However, the contrast between individuals with ADHD and those without it is likely to be far more dramatic.

Given that part of the problem may lie beyond your control, what should you do as a parent of a child who has problems paying attention to many things outside of video games and other digital media? Here are some helpful strategies for parents of children with attention difficulties:

  • Model sustained interest and effort in something you love. Help them to see you engaged in an activity over a long period of time. It doesn’t matter if it is restoring a car, tending to a vegetable garden, reading, or collecting knick-knacks. Show them how exciting it can be to develop and pursue a passion.
  • Do not allow free access to digital media, particularly when they are younger. That would be like feeding a baby ice cream and candy as their first desserts; he might struggle to appreciate the more subtle sweetness of fruits as he get older. Instead provide your child opportunities to develop an appreciation of reading with you, creating an art project, playing a board game, running around on the playground, and taking a hike in the woods.
  • Work hard to find activities that are of interest to your child. For example, for children with an interest in art, find ways to make art a more important part of their lives and then work to lengthen their attention span to that activity.
  • Involve your children in dangerous activities. You are probably thinking that this is an irresponsible idea, but hear me out. I’m not suggesting that you give your 10-year-old the keys to the sports car and tell the child to have fun. However if you find that the same 10-year-old enjoys doing stunts on BMX bikes, you might want to think about letting that child ride a dirt bike (with all the pads and protective measures) when she turns 12. You can later use this as an incentive to get her to do his more mundane homework and other chores.
  • Encourage your child to participate in more physically taxing activities. Sports such as lacrosse, ice and field hockey, football, skateboarding, and soccer present an opportunity for excitement, fast-paced action, and physicality. This often helps youngsters with attention concerns.
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