Exploring the Effects of Video Games on ADHD Children
Do video games hurt or help school-aged children with diagnosed ADHD—or is the jury still out?
The complexities of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) make a definitive declaration about the effects of video games on these children somewhat elusive. Regardless, whether the effects are negative or therapeutic boils down to a simple concept: limiting screen time.
The sight of a child sitting transfixed at the video screen, paying perfect attention to the game, may confound parents of kids with ADHD. This same child is usually moving non-stop, whether at home or at school, so what gives?
Do children with ADHD gravitate toward video games more than their non-neurodiverse peers?
It isn’t difficult to understand the allure of video games for kids with ADHD. Most of these children suffer socially, so escaping into a digital fantasy world offers them a safe space.
Also, children with ADHD may struggle to play team sports, but they find their ability to hyper-focus combined with the need for short bursts of attention make them particularly well suited to excel at video games. Still, how much screen time is okay?
The ABCs of ADHD
ADHD is a neurodevelopmental disorder that can cause impairment in scholastic achievement, social interactions, and emotional health. On average, children are diagnosed with ADHD at age seven. The disorder becomes more noticeable once the child enters school, where behavior issues and attention span deficits are evident in the classroom setting.
Symptoms of ADHD might include:
- In constant motion
- Fidgety and squirmy
- Talk excessively
- Difficulty waiting their turn
- Easily distracted
- Difficulty staying on task
- Have trouble playing quietly
- Interrupt classmates
- Impulse control problems
Boys and girls with ADHD may exhibit very different symptoms. Boys may tend to be more impulsive, aggressive, and hyperactive, while girls may tend toward having low self-esteem, being withdrawn, and prone to daydreaming.
There is to date no scientific consensus on the specific cause of ADHD, although there are some noted risk factors identified.
Possible risk factors include:
- Hereditary predisposition or genetics
- Low birth weight
- Premature birth
- Mother had a difficult pregnancy
- Brain chemistry differences, or nerve pathway differences
- Head injury to the frontal lobe
- Mothers who drank alcohol, used drugs, or smoked while pregnant
- Exposure to pesticides, lead, or PCBs
According to statistics provided by the Centers for Disease Control, as of 2016 there were approximately 6.1 million children ages 2-17 living with ADHD in the U.S. ADHD impacts males at a two and half times higher rate than females.
Additionally, about 64% of children with ADHD will also have a co-occurring disorder, such as anxiety, conduct disorder, Tourette’s syndrome, or autism. A majority of children diagnosed with ADHD will carry the disorder into their teens and adult years, although with changing symptoms.
The Negative Effects of Video Games on Young Children with ADHD
What parent with young children wouldn’t relish some quiet time?
Allowing children some daily game time can provide a bit of peace and quiet in the house. Parents of a child with ADHD are even more grateful for those lulls in activity provided by video games. The challenge becomes how to limit the screen time before unwanted effects begin to emerge.
Some of the negative effects of video games on kids with ADHD include:
- The exciting elements of video games make it harder to accomplish mundane tasks
- The games control what the child pays attention to, decreasing their ability to improve their concentration levels in real life
- Video games can be more addicting for kids with ADHD, due to dopamine’s role in the disorder, putting them at higher risk for overusing the games
- The stimulation of the video games can exacerbate ADHD symptoms
- The games can be over-stimulating and impair sleep
- Video games could be used by children with ADHD to self-medicate, avoiding real world frustrations caused by the disorder and escaping into a fantasy world
The Positive Effects of Video Games on Young Children with ADHD
Even with a significant list of potentially negative effects of video games on children with ADHD, there is some evidence that video games might offer some positive benefits.
Here are some of the positive effects of video games:
- Playing video games can reduce symptoms of anxiety by slowing down racing thoughts
- When the child begins to master the games it can improve self-esteem
- Games like Minecraft or Roblox can help children with ADHD gain useful skills
- Some games are designed to improve neuroplasticity
- Video games can be a behavioral modification tool for parents to access when looking for ways to motivate their ADHD child
6 Tips for Parents to Successfully Manage Screen Time
Since video games are now a childhood fixture that is likely here to stay, it falls on parents to moderate the use of digital games.
One thing is for certain—children will not self-moderate. Parents must determine a daily time limit for video games, such as 40 minutes, an hour, or 90 minutes depending on the age of the child.
From that point, it is up to the parents to define the boundaries, clearly spell them out to the child, and then to be consistent in monitoring game time and enforcing consequences for noncompliance.
Some guidelines for parents include:
- Explain the rules to the child, and consequences for disobeying them
- Gaming should take place in the family room, kitchen, or dining room, not in the child’s bedroom
- Offer video games as a reward after homework and chores are completed
- When an older child plays online with other players, parents should monitor the interactions and language carefully
- Set a timer when game time begins, and give a five-minute warning before time expires
- Consider the rating of a video game to select games that are age-appropriate
Kids love playing video games, there is no arguing that fact. The challenge for parents centers on helping their child with ADHD maintain a safe balance between time spent on video games and continuing to build social skills, playing outdoors, and completing academic tasks on time.
Video games do have a place in the daily life of a child with ADHD, game time just needs to be carefully monitored and managed by loving parents.
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