ADHD and Video Games: What’s The Connection?

Updated August 30, 2022 by BetterHelp Editorial Team

Since ADHD is largely heritable by genetics but also influenced by outside factors, there has not been any clear evidence that video games and other electronic media, like the Internet, are definitive sources of the condition. However, there has been an increased interest in whether or not ADHD can exacerbate symptoms in those who have already been diagnosed with it. This article will discuss how this may be the case with ADHD and video games as well as arguments against it.

ADHD Can Have Many Causes

Why Are Video Games A Concern?

Video games have been under investigation in their role in ADHD due to our modern, digital lifestyles.

Because of its status as a relatively new condition and its prevalence amongst young people, many people, especially parents, have questioned whether the frequent use of electronics is to blame for ADHD.

It is estimated that on average, kids spend upwards of 3 hours per day in front of screens playing video games and browsing the Internet, and many parents find it difficult to remove them from it. [1]

Offline gaming specifically has been questioned because it does not facilitate communication skills compared to online games, where players can group up, chat with friends, and work as a team.

Despite this, even online games can be problematic in certain individuals and can be very addictive. This also applies to general Internet use as well, and Internet addiction has been described as a genuine health concern. [1]

While the time spent on gaming is a significant issue, it is believed that too much use of it can make ADHD symptoms worse. Certain traits have been associated with excess gaming and Internet use, which will be discussed next.

Video Games' Effect on The Brain

Because of the stimulating nature of video games, people with ADHD are vulnerable to addiction, and vice-versa - games reinforce specific traits that are prominent within the condition.

While 3 hours per day is the average time spent on electronics, it has been shown that adolescents who spend just one hour a day playing games or using the Internet have had more powerful symptoms than those who did not participate in these activities. [2]

Video games are attractive to those with ADHD, especially kids, because they offer practically immediate rewards, and there is a great incentive to reach the next stage of a game. [1] This encourages the user to keep playing, and it may be difficult to stop.

The screen changes in games, which tend to happen quickly. Video games also do not demand attention and working memory from the user, nor does focusing on the screen require much effort on their part. [1]

Additionally, the relationship between ADHD and video games also involves the reward pathway in the brain, and patients who have the condition continually seek its stimulation.

Research shows that gaming can amplify the release of striatal dopamine and encourage reward dependency. This also correlates with a previous study that shows that individuals with Internet addiction also had the same increased reward dependency and an "increased prevalence of polymorphisms of the dopamine receptor gene." [1]

These same genes have also been tied to alcoholism, pathological gambling, and other widespread addictions.

How Can Video Games Make ADHD Worse?

Although gaming has many features that attract those with ADHD, it is hypothesized that there is a "bidirectional relationship" between the two. Gaming provides things that individuals with ADHD want; however, it also makes the condition worse by exacerbating symptoms.

These are symptoms of ADHD that are believed to be reinforced with the prolonged use of video games: [1]

  • Disinhibition
  • Quick responsiveness
  • Need for rewards
  • Inattention
  • Impulsivity

Because of this, it is speculated that spending more time on video games can increase the negative effects that ADHD has on scholastic performance, an area that many young people struggle with. [2]

Impact In The Classroom

For example, sitting in class and performing homework can be challenging because it requires mental effort and careful attention. Aside from receiving good grades and avoiding punishment for bad ones, there really is not a fast incentive and reward for completing their schoolwork efficiently either.

Therefore, the combination of ADHD and games can be problematic because it allows these symptoms to persevere, and affect schoolwork and other important aspects, instead of relieving them by promoting skill-building and behavioral change.

Other activities such as sports, martial arts, music, and art are argued to be a more effective and better use of one's time for someone with ADHD because they can improve attention, self-control, self-discipline, and behavioral intervention. [1]

However, some games, particularly online ones, have been useful for facilitating team-building and communication skills, which also translate into everyday life. This leads to some researchers becoming interested in the possible positive effects of video games on those with ADHD.

How Can Video Games Help ADHD?

Video games have been a cause for concern, particularly with parents, because of the problems that were presented in the previous two sections. However, it is also essential to discuss the other side of the issue and talk about how games may also be helpful.

There is both anecdotal and empirical evidence that points to games having a positive effect on the minds of those with ADHD. This does not discredit the other research, but it does offer another perspective on the issue at hand.

Contrary to the notion that gaming reinforces inattention, many parents of children with ADHD have reported that gaming is evident of good attention. Certain games can also improve reading skills if the game is more text-driven. [1] Role-playing games are a good example of this because they are often lengthy, and using text for game dialogue is not only traditional, but also more practical. It would be very expensive to apply voice-acting to every part of these games.

Technology-Based Treatment Approaches

Instead of relying solely on medication, there have been many new technology-based approaches to treat ADHD. Computer software has been developed so that it promotes the use of skills such as memory, attention, and inhibitory control, and its effects can be measured through EEG and neurofeedback. [3]

Through this kind of software, kids can train relevant skills that apply to real life. For example, training inhibitory control can help people resist sweet foods [3].

As mentioned earlier, the brain's reward pathway plays a crucial role in the relationship between ADHD and video games. Cognitive training is designed to be fun and engaging and also rewards good performance, but this could also be a downside in supporting the case that games are beneficial.

ADHD Can Have Many Causes

Because these studies are controlled and are specifically created to address various skills, it only makes a case for those specific games. Recreational games typically are not designed with any particular skills in mind, so it is not accurate to say that ALL games can be assets.

Despite this disclaimer, it is still possible that games that actively promote skill-building can be the future of treating ADHD and be another avenue alongside medication and therapy.

Conclusion

ADHD is a complex condition, and it is believed that multiple factors can influence its development and make symptoms worse. The topic of ADHD and video games is one of the most popular factors when it comes to the prevalence of the condition, and research is frequently being performed regarding it.

Video games are typically grouped together within other lifestyle factors, but because of their popularity with young people, games can often be grouped together with the Internet and television as an electronics niche.

Gaming and Internet addiction has been singled out because of their possible connection with "obesity, aggression, and poor school outcomes" but at the same time, there are too many limitations and methodological problems that still leave us without a definitive answer. [1]

There is supporting evidence from both sides that gaming is and is not the issue for ADHD, and because of this, it is still inconclusive.

Perhaps it is not video games themselves that are the issue; rather, it is a combination of what kind of games are being played and how long they are being consumed for.

Video games are not inherently bad, and in reality, they can be used for educational purposes, and it is too hasty to rule out their potential uses in treating ADHD. It might be difficult to find games that are meant for skill-building, but it is possible that more will be available in the future.

Currently, management of their kids' video game and Internet use is one the most practical solution for parents. Games should not be removed entirely, and instead, be balanced out with other activities like music and sports.

Therapy can also be useful for those with ADHD, and at BetterHelp, online counselors are available to assist the needs of people of all ages. ADHD cannot be cured, but its symptoms can be minimized with the right support and medication, which is provided by a medical doctor.

ADHD can make tasks very challenging, but by learning the right skills and addressing its symptoms, it can make life a lot easier.

References

  1. Weiss, M. D., Baer, S., Allan, B. A., Saran, K., & Schibuk, H. (2011). The screens culture: Impact on ADHD. ADHD Attention Deficit and Hyperactivity Disorders, 3(4), 327-334.doi:10.1007/s12402-011-0065-z
  2. Chan, P. A., & Rabinowitz, T. (2006). A cross-sectional analysis of video games and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder symptoms in adolescents. Annals of General Psychiatry, 5(1).doi:10.1186/1744-859x-5-16
  3. Johnstone, S. (2013). Computer Gaming and ADHD: Potential Positive Influences on Behavior. IEEE Technology and Society Magazine, 32 (1), 20-22

Other Commonly Asked Questions

Are video games linked to ADHD?
Do people with ADHD play more games?
Does limiting screen time help ADHD?
Why do video games help ADHD?
How does technology trigger ADHD?
Is ADHD caused by too much TV?
Should kids with ADHD have cell phones?
What video games are best for ADHD?
What games are good for ADHD?
Does too much screen time make ADHD worse?

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