Videogames & ADHD

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Why does my child struggle to focus on assignments at home and lessons in the classroom but has no problem focusing on video games for a seemingly infinite time period? It’s a difficult question to answer but one that pops up often. The student, who may or may not have ADHD, seems to require no external motivation to focus on video games. He or she finds no difficulty focusing on the task for long, uninterrupted blocks of time. So, why is focusing so easy with videogames but so difficult with math homework?

Specialized Skill & Evolutionary Biology

Before diving into the cause of the “video game trance” and the long-term effects, let’s briefly touch on one interesting theory about why ADHD happened in the first place… all the way back on the African Savanna. Dr. Ron J. Steingard, a senior pediatric psychopharmacologist at the Child Mind Institute, that one reason for the development of ADHD in the gene pool gave early tribes an advantage by having people watch the periphery of the camp who were hyper-vigilant to any sign of danger, from any direction. While this is by no means the only theory of the origins of ADHD, it makes an interesting case for the video game focus phenomenon. Children with ADHD are merely acting out the method of specialization handed down to them through thousands of years of evolutionary biology.

Oh the Stimuli

In May of 2019, the World Health Organization added “Gaming Disorder” to its section on substance use and addictive behaviors. Yes, that’s right. Video games are on the same list as all of the other infamous concoctions that unnaturally and unsustainably over-produce dopamine. With the carefully engineered graphics, the cacophony of sounds and colors, and the irreplaceable physical stimulation of the joystick, videogames create a perfect storm of stimuli for the adolescent mind, specifically for those adolescents with ADHD. Couple these features with a sense of instant gratification, and it is not difficult to see why normally unfocused children become hypnotized by Mario Cart.

Activity Is Not Attention

But are students with ADHD really so changed by playing videogames that their sustained attention issues disappear entirely? Well, no. Attention and activity are quite different. Videogames seemingly hold the attention of students with ADHD through continuous activity. In other words, rapid task changes stimulate the mind of a child with ADHD without the need for deep concentration. Most videogames often require players to complete multiple tasks simultaneously through short bursts of attention in a way that history textbooks and math worksheets cannot. More recently, educational technology companies like Quizlet and Kahoot have utilized the continuous activity methods of video games to aid learning; however, the videogame architects still hold the gold medal for super-stimuli and continuous activity.

Effects of Game Time

How do videogames affect children in the long-term? The outlook is not good. One study, completed by researchers at Iowa State University, found that children who spent more time playing video games were more impulsive and had more attention problems. This would imply that videogames worsen the effects of ADHD, or maybe children with more severe ADHD are more prone to long bouts of videogames. Researchers are unclear. However, most major medical publications recommend limiting total screen time to one to two hours per day. After researching why videogames work so well to stimulate dopamine, I am inclined to agree.

For more information about coping with learning differences or adapting to the ever-changing educational landscape, please visit our other resources or reach out to learn how we create a personalized approach to student success.

Evan Weinberger

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