Videogames are everywhere - on our phones, online, in our homes, at friends’ houses and even at school. Parents of kids with ADHD often ask about the effect that videogames may be having on their child. They want to know if videogames will make their child’s ADHD worse, or if spending too much time playing videogames may have caused their child’s ADHD in the first place. Some parents have such a hard time getting their kids to stop playing videogames that they wonder if their children are actually addicted to their screens.
For starters, there’s no evidence to say that videogames cause ADHD. There are some studies showing that kids with ADHD spend more time playing videogames than kids without ADHD, but the relationship isn’t necessarily causal. It might be the case that kids with ADHD choose to spend more time playing because they crave activities that are highly engaging and provide immediate rewards. Parents of kids with ADHD may also allow more videogame time. It can be so challenging to get some children with ADHD to turn off videogames, that parents can understandably get worn down by all of the battles and negotiations.
While videogames may not cause ADHD, growing evidence suggests that playing videogames regularly may in fact make ADHD symptoms worse. This may be because of the way that videogames interact with the ADHD brain as well as the documented negative impact of regular gaming on sleep, academic skills, social skills, and physical activity. Time spent playing videogames is time devoid of social interactions that teach kids with ADHD important social skills that don’t come naturally. It’s sedentary time with an absence of the important physical activity needed to help keep ADHD symptoms in check. And it’s highly stimulating time in the evening which makes it harder for kids with ADHD to fall asleep and stay asleep throughout the night. Equally concerning is evidence showing that kids and teens with ADHD are in fact at increased risk for developing problems with videogame and Internet overuse or addiction.
If as a parent you are concerned about how much time your child spends playing videogames, or the way they react when they aren’t allowed to play, then I would encourage you to trust your instincts and take action. You can start by setting firm limits around the amount of videogame time you allow. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that kids over the age of two spend no more than 2 hours watching screens each day. Since videogames represent a fraction of a child’s daily screen time, I recommend limiting videogames to no more than 30 minutes per day. If your child refuses to turn off videogames after 30 minutes, then you may need to eliminate videogames altogether for a few weeks. Then reintroduce them with a firm 30 minute rule in place. If the struggle continues, then you will need to take the videogames away again until your child learns that you mean it when you say, “It’s 30 minutes or nothing.” Without a doubt your child is going to complain that “other kids get to play videogames all the time!” Just remember those “other kids” may not have ADHD or parents who are as informed and diligent as you are about setting the limits that their children need.
While videogames themselves are not to blame for their ADHD, videogames unfortunately exacerbate ADHD conditions and prevent kids with ADHD from pursuing activities needed to help manage their systems and build skills to overcome their symptoms. Prioritizing activities that build social skills, as well as activities that include physical activity, will help kids with ADHD manage their condition. And setting firm limits now on your child’s screen time – videogames included – will pay off immediately and in the long run.
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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