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ADHD in Children Health Center

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ADHD and Video Games

Are video games a problem for people with ADHD?

How to Set Limits

"Parents have to set limits, they have to set a certain time to cut the games off," says psychologist Lisa Efron, PhD. She directs the Hyperactivity, Attention, and Learning Problems Clinic at Children's National Medical Center in Washington, D.C. "We know that kids do better with structure, and that's especially true for kids with ADHD."

She advises parents to follow the American Academy of Pediatrics' recommendation that kids spend no more than 1 to 2 hours in front of the screen. That includes any and all screens: game device, TV, or computer. Kids (with or without ADHD) shouldn't spend more than 2 hours per day with all of those gadgets, combined.

She's concerned about what kids who can't, or won't, set aside their game consoles may be missing, such as developing their social skills or self-control. 

"You have to think about what are the things they are not doing," Efron says. "What skills would they be learning if they were not playing Angry Birds?"

For young children, she says, parents must set and enforce limits. High schoolers may need less supervision. "Give them some input and see how they do," Efron says.

Make It a Reward

If you have a child with ADHD who likes playing video games, use those games as a reward for completing other tasks, such as homework, recommends psychologist Mark Stein, PhD.

"Your child is giving you the idea of what they would like for a reward or privilege," Stein says. "Kids often have this philosophical belief that to play video games is an inalienable right, and so they need to learn the difference between a right and privilege. Video games are no different than the occasional extra dessert. The child should earn time to play."

Using video games this way can help teach self-control and developing the skill to stick to an agreed-upon routine. If kids can master that, "by the time they go off to college, they have that experience and can do better on their own," Efron says.

For College Students

Stein advises his college-aged patients to set and stick to a schedule. If they spend too much time on video games, he also recommends changing their environment to help them be more productive and less prone to play.

For instance, he suggests that they turn off their Internet connection, leave the room to study in another place where there isn't so much temptation to play games, and find someone who can hold them accountable for how they spend their time.

Silver Lining?

Video games also have the potential to be helpful, if harnessed in the right way, Fong and Efron say.

Standard models of learning may not be stimulating enough to hold the attention of someone with ADHD, but educational games just might be able to.

"An educational video game might be more effective than a traditional lecture," Efron says. "If we have the technology, we should make use of it."

Fong would like to see more work done on whether there are positive aspects to video games for people with ADHD, rather than only focusing on the negatives.

"We have demonized video games as a complete waste of time," Fong says. "But we use video games to train surgeons, pilots, astronauts, soldiers. Why not use them to teach kids with ADHD?"

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Reviewed on June 21, 2012

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