Heavy Gaming May Be A Sign of ADHD

By Temma Ehrenfeld @temmaehrenfeld
October 10, 2019

Teens who spend more time on digital devices have a higher risk of developing ADHD. Should you be worried about all the time your child spends on the phone?

Is your child especially impulsive or restless, unable to focus on tasks or schoolwork?

Teens who spend more time on digital devices are twice as likely as infrequent users to develop attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), according to a 2018 report in the prestigious Journal of American Medicine. The study tracked nearly 2,600 public school teenagers who didn’t show any signs of ADHD at the time they signed up. The researchers asked them how often they used any of 14 different media platforms — from texting to streaming music or movies or posting photos. The more time teens spent video chatting, the more likely they were to develop ADHD symptoms over the two-year study. Playing games by yourself on a console, smartphone, or computer was also strongly linked to ADHD.

Heavy gamers are also more likely to have depression, says psychiatrist and gaming expert Perry Renshaw.


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This doesn’t mean video chatting or video games cause ADHD or depression; children at risk just may be more attracted to those activities. Gaming is the opposite of boring: constant flickering of light and sound effects make it easier to stay focused. Because it rewards short bursts of attention, gaming can be comforting and give some kids their best chance of success.

But that doesn’t mean gaming is good for them.

In a three-year study of some 3,000 children and teens from Singapore, the heaviest gamers become more impulsive and less attentive over time.

Some people develop signs of an addiction, like gambling. The World Health Organization includes “gaming disorder” in its list of ailments, but the U.S. bible on mental health disorders, the Diagnostic Statistical Manual, lists online gaming only as worthy or more study.

In Asia, tales of extreme compulsive gaming have grabbed headlines. South Korea cracked down with a midnight curfew for online game-playing for anyone under the age of 16. In studies in Germany and Canada, more than a quarter of teens who gamble with play money at home move on to gambling with actual money, most often using scratch cards.

The classic danger signs of an activity that’s gone out of control are: Spending more and more time, trying and failing to cut back, withdrawing from other pleasures, feeling euphoric when you play, craving, neglecting family and friends, restlessness, lying about your gaming, or feeling guilt, shame, or anxiety about your gaming. Physical symptoms like weight gain or loss, backaches, headaches, and strained wrists could show up.

To make the discussion with your child more concrete, you might invite him to try this diagnostic tool from a gaming detox camp.

It’s possible that people with ADHD are “self-medicating” themselves through gaming, which supplies shots of the pleasure-chemical dopamine. ADHD is less common at higher altitudes, where people naturally produce more dopamine. Ritalin, the ADHD medication, increases available dopamine levels.

So how much game time counts as too much? The key here isn’t one rule for all children, but how well your child is meeting responsibilities, according to psychiatrist Kourosh Dini, author of Video Game Play and Addiction: A Guide for Parents. Even so, it’s important to realize that you probably are underestimating how much time your child is spending on games. About 10 percent of U.S. eighth-graders spent nearly six hours a day on average, one analysis found. In other research among teens who say that gaming is their favorite technology use, two and a half hours a day is typical.

Gaming isn’t all bad. It may enhance spatial skills, which are linked to abstract thought. One meta-analysis concluded that playing shooter games improved spatial skills in ways that applied beyond the games.

The bottom line: As a parent, seeing your kids doing lots of gaming may be a clue to seek an evaluation. Renshaw notes that if your child is depressed or has ADHD, treating either problem does tend to unglue kids from their games.


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April 03, 2020

Reviewed By:  

Janet O’Dell RN