Why can my child pay attention to a video game—but not to anything else?!
Paradox? Or intuitive finding once we understand the basis of attention?
Attention is interest-based and driven by stimulation. Children with ADD are drawn to video games and screens in general precisely because they can focus on them; the games provide sufficient stimulation for a dopamine surge—a brain chemical involved in focus and reward pathways—and thus gaming may be considered “self-medicating.” In fact, studies have shown that ADD medications (one study used Ritalin and another Wellbutrin) actually curb cravings and amount of video game play. Aspects of stimulation in a video game include rapid movement, intense colors, quick scene changes, and psychologically exciting content (violent, competitive, bizarre, surreal, fantastical, sexual, etc.). Studies also show that newer games create higher levels of arousal compared to older ones.
Because electronics are stimulating, video games and other interactive screen media are being marketed as learning tools. But studies show gaming has an adverse effect on attention and impulsivity over time—especially in children who already have attention problems.  Essentially, when it comes to using electronics as a means to engage or reward, “it works until it doesn’t.” Soon enough, dysregulation rears its ugly head, and more and more stimulation is required for focus—identical to mechanisms in drug addiction. When children report non-screen activities as “boring,” this should be a red flag to parents and educators—the child has become accustomed to an unnatural level of stimulation.
Further confusing the video-game attention issue is the (highly touted) finding that gaming can improve visual attention , which is different than attention issues we’re discussing here: Children with attention problems generally have difficulty sustaining and focus and trouble initiating and completing goal-oriented activities, particularly if they are considered boring or difficult. These symptoms translate into problems with impulse control, the ability to delay gratification, and executive functioning (“getting things done”).
An example of visual attention, on the other hand, would be scanning an environment and visually picking out a target. Both the scientific and lay media have speculated that these studies show that playing video games could improve “surgical skills,” and perhaps that better visual attention could boost one’s potential to “become a pilot” or “be a sharpshooter,” or that it could—may favorite—“improve driving skills.”
Really?! If gaming worsens (regular) attention, impulse control, and frustration tolerance, which are known risk factors for accidents, then gaming improving driving skills in a teenage boy is laughable. And someone who can shoot well but has poor impulse control is not welcome in the military. Believe me, aside from the fact that pilots and surgeons are a fraction of a percent of the population, you can bet that to make it in a career with long and intense training, pilots and surgeons are able to pay attention, delay gratification, and demonstrate superior executive functioning!
In short, there is no evidence that using electronic media offers any superior educational benefits, and it may in fact cause harm in terms of attention and impulse control (among other things)—particularly in a child who already struggles with those issues. Don’t be seduced by bells and whistles. Attention is optimized by plenty of exercise and (natural!) play, proper sleep and managing stress—in other words, getting back to the basics.
For more on the effects of video games on the nervous system visit drdunckley.com/videogames/ and see Reset Your Child's Brain: A Four Week Plan to End Meltdowns, Raise Grades & Boost Social Skills by Reversing the Effects of Electronic Screen Time.
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