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ADHD and Video Games

Are video games a problem for people with ADHD?
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WebMD Feature

Getting sucked into a video game is easy. For kids and adults with ADHD, turning that game off can be quite difficult.

Video games offer players intense, often relentless action, constant rewards, competition, and thrilling stories -- just the type of stimuli that the ADHD brain craves, and which it rarely gets in the more mundane, non-digital world of everyday life.

"Playing a video game, you feel engaged, stimulated," UCLA psychiatrist Timothy Fong, MD, says. "They don't get that when they are sitting in school or reading a book."

But parents of ADHD gamers see their kids stuck in front of a screen and worry about what it's doing to their already fragile ability to focus on schoolwork and their social lives. 

Relationship Unclear

There is no proof that playing video games makes anyone more likely to develop ADHD.

There hasn't been a lot of research on the topic. "The field is still in its infancy," says Anatol Tolchinsky, a doctoral candidate in clinical psychology at Eastern Michigan University. He has published one of the few research papers on the topic.

"It's hard to determine the impact of video games, despite how well they are spread in our culture," Fong says. "What we know is very thin."

Potential Time Management Problem

For many gamers, putting in some screen time with their favorite game doesn't interfere with their social life, school, or work.

But for some people, often including those with ADHD, it can have a negative impact on obligations outside the game world. That's when game play becomes problematic.

"When a gamer gets off work or out of class, he often has homework or studying or something else he needs to do," Tolchinsky says. "But if he has problems with gaming, he might end up playing and procrastinating until it is too late. Then he has to face the consequences."

Tolchinsky's study looked at the relationship between ADHD and what's known as problematic video game play in college students. He found that young men with ADHD who also had poor time management skills were much more likely to report having problems with video games.

The findings were somewhat different for the young women with ADHD who Tolchinsky studied. Their video game problems appeared to be more broadly related to ADHD symptoms. The women also reported fewer game-related problems overall and logged half as many game play hours per week as their male classmates.

"Time management seems to have a moderating influence on how problematic video game play becomes," Tolchinsky says. That is, it's not that much of a problem if it's not wrecking your schedule.

For anyone who has or is familiar with ADHD, that should be no surprise. 

"Time management is particularly important for individuals with ADHD," Tolchinsky says. "It's helpful for treating problematic game play, but it is also important for quality of life."

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