In an earlier post, we discussed the potential relationship between screen time and ADHD. Some research shows that as screen time increases, linguistic performance, memory, attention, and emotional balance decreases. Yet, any parent of a child with ADHD will tell you that their child can sit quietly for hours and engage in a game on their iPad or PlayStation. If screen time is associated with the development of ADHD, why is this so?

As reported by the Child Mind Institute, the short answer to this question is fairly simple: video games provide non-stop screen time and adhdaction that kids with ADHD seek out. Sitting quietly in their seat all day at school provides very little stimulation for any child, especially one who has ADHD. It stands to reason, then, that in that kind of environment a child would display inattention, hyperactivity, and other common symptoms of ADHD. Put that same child in front of a video game, however, and the situation can be completely different.

Video games, with their constant stream of sights, sounds, adventures, and interactivity can hold a child’s attention because their attention is required in order to do well in the game. Losing their attention means they lose the game, so children are forced to stay locked in to the fast-paced gaming environment. Some people argue that this behavior is indicative of a child not having ADHD. They argue that if a child can engage so steadfastly in a videogame, then they should be able to do the same in real life. For critics, there is no relationship between screen time and ADHD.

However, being able to hone in on a video game for extended periods of time without being able to do so in other areas of life is actually a telltale sign of ADHD. The type of attention required to engage in a video game is not the same type of attention a child needs to listen to a teacher’s lecture in class. The video game environment changes so quickly that it actually only requires very short bursts of attention – something that children with ADHD are fully capable of doing. Furthermore, video games require continuous activity. The constant movement of the eyes around the screen and the complex finger movements on the game controller help kids with ADHD stay engaged.

Another aspect of screen time and ADHD is that many children find the instant gratification and spontaneous reward structure often found in playing games to be highly attractive. Children with ADHD are hard-wired to seek out such stimulation, which, unfortunately, does not often occur in many life settings. School is a place that requires a lot of work to generate a reward, and when the reward is received, such as a good grade, it may not hold much value for a child with ADHD.

An Iowa State University study reveals that children who engage in video game playing the most exhibit the most inattention and impulsivity. What results is a vicious cycle, in which children at-risk of attention problems play more and more video games, which further exacerbates their inattention. Additionally, the more time children spend playing video games, the less time they spend interacting with other children, engaging in physical activity, and practicing communication and social skills. In that regard, too much screen time is bad for any child, not just those who have ADHD. For more information about ADHD and ADHD treatments, visit the Learning Breakthrough Program’s ADHD page.