ADD/ADHD and Videogames – Is there a Link? (Part 1)

GamingVideogame consoles have become so ubiquitous that they are simply seen as a fact of modern life.  But at what cost?  Many parents are vaguely worried that their children are spending too much time playing.  Some are even allowing themselves to use the word ‘addiction’ when it comes to describing playing habits.

The debate about the role of videogames is a valid and important one. Questions need to be asked about the possible long term impact of the disengagement from the real world that inevitably results from vast amounts of time spent in digital environments.  For those struggling with the symptoms of ADHD the question about possible links between the condition and videogames also needs to be asked.

This subject is obviously guaranteed to generate a spirited debate with people airing very strong opinions on both sides of the argument.  Some would even go as far as to argue that videogames used in moderation can actually improve the symptoms of ADHD.  Personally I am a little wary of such claims, not least because the video gaming industry is pouring vast amounts of money into public relations efforts to try and dispel some of the unease about its products.  A central plank of these efforts is to emphasise some of the supposed positive effects of video games.

One example of the ‘games are good’ trend is the many articles claiming that gaming can improve reaction times by a few hundreds of a second. The problem with many of these ‘benefits’ is that they lack mainstream real-world application. Being able to push a button slightly faster than someone else might be of some use if you are training to be a fighter pilot, but not for much else. (The many hours in front of the console, instead of in front of math and science handbooks, will in any way make moving into a real pilot’s seat highly unlikely!)

If you conclude, based on the comment made above, that I am very worried about the way in which videogames can lead to withdrawal from the real world you would be absolutely correct. In the past I would perhaps have stopped my comments there and avoid making any statements about linkages between ADD/ADHD and gaming. However, a new study by DA Gentile (Pathological video game use among youth 8 to 18: A national study.   Psychological Science, 20, 594-602) means that I can now be a bit bolder with my warnings about excessive gaming and ADD/ADHD.

Gentile’s study was conceived as a way to determine whether some young people are indeed ‘addicted’ (in the clinical sense) to video games and, if this is the case, what the implications would be. The study worked with a randomly selected sample (1178) of American young people. It found that about 8% of the gamers in this group had ‘pathological patterns of play’. Pathological gaming is where gaming activity reaches levels where it significantly impairs schoolwork, relationships, everyday activities etc. All of this may come as no surprise to most people, we are all aware of the way in which some kids lives can get ‘taken over’ by gaming. What is surprising, however, is the direct links that Gentile found between pathological gaming and ADD/ADHD diagnoses. He writes: “Pathological gamers had been playing for more years, played more frequently and for more time, knew more of the video-game rating symbols, received worse grades in school, were more likely to report having trouble paying attention in school, were more than twice as likely to have been diagnosed with an attention-deficit disorder, had more health problems that were likely to have been exacerbated by long hours of playing video games (e.g., hand pain and wrist pain), and were more likely to report having felt “addicted” to games and having friends they thought were “addicted” to games.”

Gentile’s findings, although disturbing, comes as a welcome validation to thousands of parents who are uneasy about the effects of video games on their children (despite the fact that the industry tells them that it is ‘good for them’!). The fact is that about one in ten gamers experience significant ‘real world’ negative fallouts from their near constant immersion in digital environments. There is admittedly a bit of a ‘chicken and egg’ question here namely: “Do ADD/ADHD kids naturally gravitate towards pathological levels of gaming?”; or “Does gaming lead to the development of ADD/ADHD symptoms in some children?”. More research will have to be done on these questions. One fact remains however: There are clear and undeniable links between pathological gaming and ADD/ADHD diagnoses.

The existence of this link should prompt all of us to have the best possible strategies and policies for the way in which gaming in our homes will be managed in place. With next week’s article we will begin to discuss the principles of healthy gaming as well as outline a strategy for how this can be achieved.