Video Games and ADHD: A Cause or a Cure?

In a recent post, I discussed some of the reasons why people may believe that playing video games can cause ADHD. Today, however, I’d like to talk about some of the research on this topic, and discuss how video games can actually help kids with ADHD through neurocognitive brain training.

First of all, it is important to clarify the causes of ADHD. ADHD is a neurocognitive developmental disorder in which 75% of individuals diagnosed with ADHD have a clear genetic component, while many of the remaining ADHD diagnoses can have causes such as environmental toxins, prenatal and birth difficulties, lead poisoning, and difficulties associated with medical problems. Although there are some studies that suggest that exposure to media can impact attention span, such as those indicating that high levels of TV watching in infancy can be related to ADHD and others demonstrating that background television reduces concentration skills, there is no evidence that video games or other digital technologies cause ADHD.

However, there is increasing evidence that digital media, and for that matter a variety of life experiences, cause structural changes in the brain. Does this mean that playing video games could cause structural brain changes that could either increase or decrease capacities for focus and attention? The newest neuroscience data certainly suggests that this is the case.

We have compelling data that playing action-based video games improves processing speed and visual attention skills, and that selected and intense video game play enhances working memory skills (a core component of ADHD). What is interesting about this data is that is displays the accompanying structural imaging studies of the brain that show the actual brain change from gameplay.

Other brain imaging studies, conducted through the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) have demonstrated how the brains of children with ADHD differ from typically developing brains. This leaves us thinking that perhaps specific brain training might be used to help children with attentional difficulties to change and improve their brain functioning.  While we can certainly rule out video games as a cause of ADHD, it is becoming clearer every day that gaming, when done purposefully and responsibly, can help to mitigate the symptoms of ADHD. This may not quite be a “cure” for ADHD, but it is a viable treatment.

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Keep in mind that if we can train the brain in a positive manner, we can also engage in activities that adversely affect the brain. So it is important to tread carefully in your efforts to help your child with attention problems. Here are a few suggestions to guide you in your decision making.

  • Play with technology. In this case, we are not simply referring to playing video games, rather to developing computer-based skills such as programming, video and audio editing, and computer-assisted drafting and drawing programs. Developing an expertise in these areas can become a useful source of self-esteem as children grow older and a potential field for jobs.
  • Play activity-based video games. The data is clear: sustained, intense physical activity enhances attention span and learning. You may want to impose a condition that part of your child’s digital play activity involves the youngster’s engagement with highly-active video games such as Sports Champions, Dance Central, or Kinect Sports.
  • Find games that can specifically train the skills your child needs to improve the most. Different types of video games and digital media train different parts of the brain, and targeting your child’s digital play time at the particular skills she struggles with will greatly improve the efficiency of game-base brain training. Search through our Games and Beyond Games lists to find the best games for your unique child.

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