Should Kids with ADHD Play Video Games?

Parents of children with ADHD are always asking me if they should stop letting their child play video games. Often these parents become worried about their children’s gaming after noticing that they seem “over-focused” on video games, exhibit an inability (or unwillingness) to stop playing long enough to get their homework done, or lack the desire to participate in other healthy activities. While parents often appreciate the fact that video game play may keep the house quiet and their child occupied, many wonder if it’s a waste of time — or worse, a detriment to their child’s development. While I certainly understand these parents’ concerns, my answer to them is always the same: The best thing you can do is not take take video games away from your child, but rather to get proactive, get involved, and learn how to use these technologies to their benefit.

I often talk to parents about understanding the importance of technology in the lives of their children. The reality is that if they restrict their children’s access to technology too much, these children may fall behind in learning the vital 21st century skills of information management and literacy in digital media and technology. Furthermore, they may find themselves feeling that they are “different” from their peers and have less awareness of the latest games and technologies that their friends are always talking about. As these children get older, they may be left out of the social loop if they do not have access to a cell phone for texting or to Facebook for communicating with their peers. While this may be acceptable for some parents (and also appropriate for many ADHD children who may be a year or two less mature than their same-age peers), there can be serious repercussions for these choices.

One of the reasons that this question is asked so frequently is due to the increased level of engagement that ADHD children show while playing video games. This is particularly noticeable because of the easily-observed difference in their level of attention and focus while they are playing video games when contrasted to many other activities. While the research does not suggest that the typical child with ADHD spends more time playing video games than their peers, there is some data indicating that there is more variability, so some ADHD children play for an excessive amount of time. There is also some limited evidence from one study that video games can have a negative effect on their academic performance if they play for more than one hour a day.

Due to concerns regarding impulsivity, some parents are concerned that playing violent video games may be particularly harmful for youngsters with ADHD. Again, there is a dearth of real research in this area. Most of the data, including current research by Chris Ferguson and Cheryl Olson, indicates that children with ADHD do not show any behavioral change as a result of playing violent video games. That said, I would caution that because kids with ADHD can have difficulty picking up on social and environmental cues, violent games may be somewhat more apt to desensitize them to real-world violence, and they may not take the time (or have the ability) to make these distinctions as well as their same-age peers.

Conversely, the argument to allow a child with ADHD to play video games and master other digital technologies is powerful. There are increasing data that pro-social videogame play can improve working memory, selective attention, and executive functions. For many children with ADHD, their expertise with technology and video games is a significant source of self-esteem, a place where they experience a sense of flow and engagement, and where they are able to learn skills that can and should be applied to their education.

In summary, if you have a child with ADHD, here’s a starting place for thinking about the role of video games in their lives.

  • Limit them to no more than one hour of video game play a day. Encourage the use of other apps and digital media that practice academic skills or develop technology skills (you may wish to change this and give yourself a break on long family vacations or at other times when it serves your family to have them quietly engaged in an activity).
  • Watch them carefully to learn about how you can use their engagement in video games and with other technologies to help them learn thinking and academic skills.
  • Consider the maturity of your child with ADHD when introducing them to new games and technologies. Carefully consider a child’s age and maturity when you allow him or her to play T- or M-rated video games, or allow them access to a cell phone or social media.
  • Insist that children’s digital play be only one part of what they do. We have great evidence that ADHD children learn more, pay attention better, and are in fact happier when they are involved in regular and intense physical activity, engaged socially, and are outdoors enjoying nature. So, make sure that technology is not more important than these activities.

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