This week, I invited mother and medical writer Jessica Solodar to share her story: Jessica's daughter Alice experienced daily seizures triggered by video games, but suffered for years before she was properly diagnosed. My clinical work and writing often focus on electronic media precipitating nervous system dysregulation, but this case was an eye-opener even for me.
Volatile behavior, impaired cognitive skills, and poor physical health are not uncommon in young people who spend many hours in front of video games and other electronic screens. These symptoms and others can be the result of hard-to-detect seizures that are triggered by flashing, fast-moving images. Video game seizures are more common than people think-they can happen to anyone, not just people with epilepsy. Although researchers have studied them extensively and game manufacturers provide seizure warnings, there is still little awareness among consumers and clinicians.
The primary reason you don't hear much about these seizures is that many seizures are never noticed or diagnosed. Because seizure events may not be noticed, and their disabling after-effects can linger, it can be hard to pinpoint the cause of disability. This is a serious and largely unrecognized public health problem that is still growing as the pervasiveness of video screens continues to expand.
I learned about video game seizures only after my daughter's health, behavior, and cognitive functioning had suffered for several years. The effects of video games on her health and her daily function were pretty devastating. We didn't fully realize how much she'd been impaired by all of the seizures until she got away from the screen. Fortunately, we were able to restore her health and greatly improve her daily life "just" by helping her eliminate video games from her life.
As a pre-teen Alice was addicted to video games and played several hours a day on weekdays. Weekends were much worse. With a great deal of effort, she finally went cold turkey about four years ago. Like anyone with an addiction, she still has cravings every day. However, she's had only a few brief relapses now that she knows how disabled she becomes from visual overstimulation
Alice's addictive gaming caused constant friction at home-any limits we set on her screen time never worked. "I just want to play for ten minutes," she'd say, which sounded just like someone pleading for just one drink. Nearly every time, by the time those ten minutes went by, something in Alice's brain had unmistakably shifted. The very sincere promises she'd made to stop the game without a fight no longer were inaccessible to her. I felt I was talking to a different person once she'd been in front of the screen again.
Here's a glimpse of what life was like at home when she was gaming for hours each day. Alice seemed "out of it" a lot. Sometimes at the end of the day after lots of screen time she seemed to be on autopilot, in a dazed state. At times she didn't seem to hear us talking to her. She began showing some odd behaviors that she didn't remember later. Alice was alarmingly volatile, abnormally fatigued, and she struggled to concentrate in class. She missed a lot of school, because many days she couldn't be awakened until the afternoon, despite our vigorous efforts. This wasn't ordinary sleepiness. She was often unresponsive after an hour of constant attempts.
For several years we had absolutely no idea there was any connection between the video games and her health problems. We didn't know that Alice was having multiple seizures every day while gaming. She had no seizure history we were aware of, so we gave no thought to the seizure warnings printed in the game instructions. We didn't notice anything that resembled a seizure, either. We certainly didn't know then that many seizures don't involve a person falling to the floor with convulsions.
Seizures typically leave behind symptoms such as extreme fatigue, dysregulated moods, memory problems, and poor concentration, often for as long as a couple of days while the brain recovers. These symptoms can be expected after most types of seizures, including those with no convulsions. In Alice's case, she played video games so much that there was no chance for her brain to recover from each seizure before the next one happened. She was in a chronic post-seizure state. When we found out that she was experiencing seizures every day while gaming, we finally had an explanation for the cause of many of her health issues.
After we explained to Alice that video games were affecting her physical and mental health, she cut back just enough to see a difference for herself. Then it still took about a year until she was ready to give up video games entirely. It was very hard, but she was motivated by the knowledge that she would feel a lot healthier without all the seizures.
We had underestimated the effect of the seizures on Alice's mood, behavior, energy, working memory, and ability to focus. It was exhilarating to see her real personality emerge and blossom. It was also quite frightening to realize how much and how long she had been disabled, and how there must be many other young people with similar situations.
We took Alice for neuropsychological testing before she gave up video games and repeated some of the tests a year later with the same clinician. The neuropsychologist was amazed at the changes in her from one year to the next and said she presented as a different girl. He saw notable gains in her maturity, mood, focus, reading fluency, and working memory. Most important, she was able to work for more than an hour at a time during the testing. In prior testing she had been able to stay focused for 20 minutes at most and needed to take many breaks during testing sessions due to lack of mental stamina.
In short, although it may sound too good to be true, it was possible to restore Alice's health simply by eliminating screen entertainment and without adding medication. The big improvements from a few years ago have endured as long as she continues to avoid exposure to anime and video games. In our house we keep the computers in a locked room, which is the way Alice wants it. If I forget to close the door when leaving the computer room, Alice brings it to my attention. She still needs help to resist the impulse to get in front of the screen. As a precaution we still use cell phones without touch screens, game software, or Internet access.
You can conduct your own experiment at home by removing and (and locking away) video screens. Explain to your child that you want to see if several days without games will lessen fatigue, moodiness, irritability, and struggles with learning. You and your child will probably have to work hard at removing the video games even for a short time. If you do see improvements brought about by abstinence from gaming, you'll need to remain vigilant thereafter in order to protect those gains.
It's well worth the effort!
Dr. Dunckley's note: Seizure activity can be triggered by intense visual stimuli in some children--which is simply a more extreme version of electronics-induced overstimulation. Video game-induced seizures are not as rare as manufacturers claim, and can cause cognitive, behavioral, emotional, and physical health problems, just as overstimulation can.
For a thorough review on photosensivity and seizures, see Fisher et al, 2005.
For help with liberating your child from electronic screens, visit www.drdunckley.com/videogames/