ADHD Treatment with Games, Apps, and Digital Media

If you are a parent of a child with ADHD, sometimes it’s hard to figure out what will actually help them. Traditional methods like medication can be helpful, but also have very clear side effects. Behavioral and educational strategies are modestly helpful but are often difficult to implement and require sustained point-of-performance involvement on the part of parents and teachers. Tools such as biofeedback and nutritional strategies have only limited support in research.

Video games and other digital technologies are being courted as the latest approach to helping children with ADHD. The good news is that the evidence for using these technologies is very promising. There is rigorous research to show that working memory training programs can increase children’s working memory skills, actually change their brains, and improve their performance at school and home. Using technologies such as voice recognition systems, iPad apps, and a myriad of smart phone organizational and productivity applications can be immensely helpful in supporting individuals with ADHD.

Advocates of using video games have taken many approaches to using games with kids. One is to simply let the kids play popular commercial video games that practice problem solving, memory, and focusing skills. Games such as Portal 2, Starcraft, and many of the Zelda games have been identified as helpful for kids with ADHD. In actuality, there is very limited evidence that this strategy alone will be helpful to kids, though there have not been any formal studies that take into account the intensity and duration of this type of “treatment”.

A second approach is to use proprietary video games and technologies specifically designed to improve attention and other underlying deficits of ADHD.  The most effective, well researched tool is Cogmed Working Memory Training which has been demonstrated to improve many ADHD symptoms as well as helping with academic and executive functioning skills. Technologies, such as those produced by SmartBrain, use neurofeedback to teach a child to focus their attention. Other technologies that show promise include Captains Log and Play Attention.

A third approach uses digital technologies to support areas of weakness for children with ADHD. This approach uses digital technologies to offset an area of ADHD vulnerability, like glasses for someone with poor vision.  Apps such as Evernote, YouNote! or myHomework all provide tools that can compensate for difficulties with Organization, Planning,and Working Memory. Typing and  speech recognition programs have been demonstrated to help with the writing difficulties experienced by many children with ADHD.

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The fourth approach is to use video games as a teaching tool where parents, educators, and the kids themselves learn to transfer game-based skills such as planning, cognitive flexibility, time management, and organization to real world situations. This approach takes going beyond the games themselves and using the games as an opportunity for the children to learn about the skills, practice the skills in a fun and engaging manner, then applying the skills in their real life. This approach requires more work but holds great promise as video game play is a highly motivating task to many children with ADHD.

Opponents of using video games and technologies to help to improve the skills of children with ADHD rightfully throw a cautionary flag. Because children with ADHD tend to have difficulties with transitioning and get easily over-engaged in things that interest them, it is important to be able to set clear limits on video game play and other digital technology use. Video game play needs to be part of a healthy Play Diet and as such treated like other play opportunity, like involving kids in artistic and hands on projects, and spending time with friends and family. Using video games as a teaching tool also works best when games and technologies are selected because they target an individualized child’s needs rather than promoted as a blanket approach for all children with ADHD. As in most things in life, improvement and learning requires attention, practice, motivation, persistence and a good teacher. Video games and digital technologies support and have many of these attributes, making them a great tool for helping kids with ADHD.

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