Heavy Gaming May Aggravate Attention Problems

5 min read

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

Lots of screen time—especially on games—may make things worse.

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 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.

Adults who spend a great deal of time online, particularly on role-playing games, also seem to have more ADHD symptoms.

Heavy gamers are more likely to have depression as well, according to psychiatrist and gaming expert Perry Renshaw.

This doesn’t mean video chatting or video games cause ADHD or depression; people at risk 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. If you have trouble socializing offline, online activities may provide a needed outlet.

The big risk is you’ll give up offline activities. Some gamers develop signs of a behavioral addiction, like gambling. In fact, the World Health Organization includes “gaming disorder” in its list of ailments. (However, the U.S. bible on mental health disorders, the Diagnostic Statistical Manual, hasn’t signed on, listing online gaming only as worthy of more study).

Image by Freepix

Image by Freepix

This isn’t just a problem for teens. Gaming may aggravate inattention as individuals enter their 20s. In a study of more than 5,000 Swiss men, researchers concluded that heavy gamers at age 20 were more likely to show symptoms of ADHD at age 25 compared to non-heavy gamers. It worked the other way, too: if you had ADHD at 20, you were more likely to be a heavy gamer five years later.

What about younger children? 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.

In Asia, tales of 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 on the activity,
  • Trying and failing to cut back
  • Withdrawing from other pleasures
  • Feeling euphoric when you play
  • Neglecting family and friends
  • Lying about your gaming
  • Feeling guilt, shame, or anxiety about your gaming.

Physical symptoms like weight gain or loss, backaches, headaches, and strained wrists could show up.

To check yourself out, or make a discussion with someone else more concrete, try this diagnostic tool from a gaming detox camp.

Screen Time Is Rising

When schools closed during the pandemic, students were forced to spend more time online both for school and socializing. Now, there’s evidence that the new habit stuck for many kids—who continue to spend more than an extra hour each day in non-school-related screen activities. Teachers and principals say this rise in screentime is linked to bad behavior.

American teen boys spend about nine hours a day entertaining themselves online, according to one survey, and girls about eight. Middle- and lower-income teens, both male and female, spend more than nine hours that way. An hour and 46 minutes of that time went to gaming, on average.

Heavy gamers go for longer. In earlier 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. Another meta-analysis backs up the idea that boosting kids’ spatial skills can improve their achievement in math.

Attention Essential Reads

So, how much game time counts as too much? The key here isn’t one rule for all children, but rather parents should measure how well their child is meeting responsibilities, according to psychiatrist Kourosh Dini, author of Video Game Play and Addiction: A Guide for Parents. Just be aware that you probably underestimate how much time your child spends on games and other online activities.

The bottom line: As a parent, seeing your kids gaming many hours a day is a clue to seek an evaluation.

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