Do video games cause ADHD?

By Caroline Miller, editorial director of the Child Mind Institute. Shared in partnership with childmind.org.

We hear it from frustrated parents: Why is it that my child, who finds it almost impossible to stay in his chair and focus on the lesson at school, can nonetheless sit in front of a video screen, transfixed, for hours? He fits all the criteria for attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) -- except when he's playing video games. And when you tell him to stop and come to dinner, you'd better be prepared for pushback.

Seeing this combination of behaviors prompts parents to wonder several things: Does playing video games actually cause ADHD? Does it make it worse? Or does the intense focus this child brings to video games suggest he doesn't have ADHD after all? (Visit the Child Mind Institute to learn more about ADHD.)

Let's take these one at a time.

Special appeal

First, "there is no evidence whatsoever that TV or video games cause ADHD," explains Dr. Natalie Weder, a child and adolescent psychiatrist at the Child Mind Institute who has treated many kids with the disorder. That said, super-fast-paced TV shows and video games do have a special appeal for kids who have ADHD.

"If you think about SpongeBob, or a video game, there's never a second when there's nothing happening on the screen," Weder notes. "If you're playing a video game, you have to immediately respond. Otherwise you lose. You don't have time to think. So kids with ADHD are very drawn to that. Here are no gaps for them to start thinking about something else."

Bursts of attention

Video games effectively hold the attention of kids who find it very challenging to concentrate in the rest of their lives. But what's happening when kids are absorbed in video games isn't the same kind of paying attention that other tasks require.

"Continuous activity doesn't mean sustained attention," points out Dr. Ron Steingard, a child and adolescent psychiatrist at the Child Mind Institute. "The task is changing so rapidly, short bursts of attention are all that's involved. These games are constantly shifting focus, and there is instant gratification and reward."

It makes sense the kids with ADHD would find games more compelling than the average person. "Nothing else in life moves that quickly and rewards that spontaneously," notes Steingard. (See relaxation apps for kids with ADHD.)

Hypervigilance

Steingard points out that one theory developed by evolutionary biologists for the presence of ADHD in the gene pool is that it gave early tribes an advantage to have people watching the periphery of the camp who were hypervigilant to any sign of danger, from any direction. Similarly, says Steingard, "Video games throw stimuli at many different visual points, and to play well you have to be able to pay attention to all of them at the same time. If you're too linear or methodical, it won't work."

Are these games addictive for children with ADHD, since presumably they trigger the release of dopamine? "Only in the sense that any pleasure is addictive," says Steingard. "Anything that makes you feel good drives the same circuit path."

But the claim has been made by some researchers that the constant stimulation and instant rewards of games raise the bar for kids to pay attention in normal, less stimulating situations where you have to work harder to get rewards.

Gaming time

An Iowa State University study of some 3,000 children and adolescents from Singapore, measured over three years, found that children who spent more time playing video games were more impulsive and had more attention problems. Researchers interpreted the findings to suggest that video game playing can "compound kids' existing attention problems."

But the study results don't offer supporting evidence that the games cause or worsen the attention problems -- they just suggest that kids who play the most have more severe ADHD symptoms. Steingard says there's no evidence of causality here. It could be that kids who have the most severe ADHD symptoms are the most drawn to video games.

What gamers are missing

That isn't to say that kids spending an unlimited amount of time playing these games isn't harmful, but it's a different kind of harm. The problem is that all that screen time means time not spent doing other things more valuable for their development, including interacting with family and friends. That may be the issue underlying the findings in this study, which also found correlation between frequent use of digital media and development of ADHD symptoms, but no causation. 

Since social skills are a challenge for many kids with ADHD, who have trouble paying attention and reining in their impulsivity, the cost can be high. "It's not healthy socially to spend a lot of time by yourself playing games in lieu of doing something with people," says Steingard. But he adds that that's a global concern, not just for kids with ADHD: "No kid should spend unlimited time sitting in front of a screen in lieu of playing with other kids."

Learn more about the Child Mind Institute, an independent, national nonprofit dedicated to transforming the lives of children and families struggling with mental health and learning disabilities

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Comments

Teen, 14 years old written by FourEyes

I'm pretty sure ADHD is something you're born with, and not something you can develop. (I'm not a professional so I may be wrong.) If this helps, in my own experience as a frequent gamer, I have never shown any tendencies of ADHD.
Teen, 13 years old written by WhyEvenBother

I'm not a professional in any way, but I do know a bit about mental health: ADHD is something someone is born with. Video games may cause attention problems if you get too addicted, but it won't cause ADHD; ADHD is something you're born with. They might just have an Internet addiction, I recommend taking the device away for a few days. Or not. Whatever works. It takes 24 days to break a habit, and if someone is off a device for 24 days, I'm guessing they'll pay better attention to stuff.
Parent of a 5, 10, and 12 year old written by Albert S.

ADHD is usually something you are born with, not always. That's not to say video games actually cause it - but there is ample evidence to suggest that causes of ADHD are not exclusively genetic.
Teen, 14 years old written by F l y n n

It is SO hillarious when people think video games are causing issues with your children. Video games can't cause ADHD, if you have ADHD and you're a person who plays videogames, you most likely had it already.
Parent of a 5, 10, and 12 year old written by Albert S.

Actually, there is no proof that video games cause ADHD - which is not necessarily to say that it doesn't. I'm okay with assuming it doesn't until proven otherwise, but bear in mind that there is plenty of evidence that shows kids doing lots of screen time/video games have more attention difficulty than kids that don't. So even though screen time/video games may not cause ADHD, it can definitely be detrimental to a kid's well being - that's documented over and over again.