Do an online search for “causes of ADHD” and you’ll find plenty of discussion about video games being a driving factor in the rising number of kids being diagnosed with ADHD each year. With so many people weighing in on the causes of ADHD, it can be difficult to separate fact from fiction.
Let’s start by talking about why people suspect that playing video games leads to the development of ADHD. In general, this idea stems from the belief that video games train the brain to focus only on activities that involve a high level of stimulation. Almost every parent of a child with ADHD has observed a big difference in their child’s ability to focus when they’re playing video games versus when they’re doing just about anything else. When kids with ADHD are playing video games, they can be so focused that it almost seems like they don’t have ADHD at all. So, it’s natural to wonder if playing video games has altered their ability to focus on anything that does not involve a high level of stimulation.
But does existing research support the notion that video games cause ADHD? Overall, the answer is no. Time and time again, studies point primarily to genetic causes of ADHD, with a role for other environmental influences like prenatal factors or exposure to lead or other toxins during childhood. That said, there are numerous studies suggesting that excessive video game playing (usually defined as more than one or two hours per day) can make ADHD symptoms worse for kids who already have an ADHD diagnosis and cause higher levels of oppositional behavior.
Why would video games make ADHD symptoms and oppositional behaviors worse? Interestingly, it’s not really the video games themselves that are to blame. It’s the difficulty that kids with ADHD, and their parents, have with monitoring and moderating the use of video games. Once kids with ADHD start playing video games, they typically become hyperfocused, so much so that they have a hard time stopping when it’s time to do something else. This means that they:
So, knowing that playing video games don’t cause ADHD, but can make ADHD symptoms worse, what should parents do? Should they keep their child from playing video games altogether? There isn’t really a one-size-fits-all answer to this question. If a child already plays video games regularly, can they play in moderation without constant arguments and negotiations with their parents? If that’s the case, then a moderate amount of video game play (for example, 30 minutes a day or limiting video games to one hour a day on the weekends) should be fine. If this is not the case, and parents find that their child is only interested in playing video games, doesn’t seem to find anything else interesting or enjoyable, or there is a high level of conflict at home around video games, then playing in moderation might not be an option – at least not right now. In these situations, I highly recommend that parents work with a mental health professional to figure out a plan for eliminating video games for a specified time (somewhere from 3-6 months) before gradually reintroducing video games with a very clear set of ground rules. It can be very challenging to make these changes successfully if your child has been playing video games excessively. If you are concerned about the impact that video games are having on your child and your family, then reach out to a mental health professional for help.
Mary Rooney, Ph.D., is a licensed clinical psychologist in the Department of Psychiatry at the University of California San Francisco. Dr Rooney is a researcher and clinician specializing in the evaluation and treatment of ADHD and co-occurring behavioral, anxiety, and mood disorders. A strong advocate for those with attention and behavior problems, Dr. Rooney is committed to developing and providing comprehensive, cutting edge treatments tailored to meet the unique needs of each child and adolescent. Dr. Rooney's clinical interventions and research avenues emphasize working closely with parents and teachers to create supportive, structured home and school environments that enable children and adolescents to reach their full potential. In addition, Dr. Rooney serves as a consultant and ADHD expert to Huntington Learning Centers.
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