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Can Video Games Teach Kids With ADHD to Pay Attention?

5 strategies that make video games a tool for improving attention.

Key points

  • We have become accustomed to a world in which movement, change, and entertainment are the norm.
  • Video-game play may be an activity in which kids with ADHD report a sense of accomplishment and sustain their persistence toward a goal.
  • Video games and social media are not going to disappear, so parents and educators need to learn how to leverage them to help kids learn.

It is considered to be common “knowledge” that smartphones, video games, and other digital media are reducing our attention spans. Some studies have suggested that smartphones are a cause of attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). But is this actually true? Kids (and adults) report that they have shorter attention spans and readily acknowledge the need for constant stimulation. Forty-two percent of people report that they look at their cell phones when they are bored. It’s easy to rely upon a smartphone when bored because 70 to 75 percent of adults can reach their cell phone 24 hours a day without ever moving their feet! Yet, what if playing popular or specially designed video games and other screen-based technologies could actually improve attention?

Constant Screen Exposure vs. Doing "Nothing"

Many, if not most, 21st-century kids and adults need something exciting to occupy their attention. Smartphones and other screens often capture our attention whether we want them to or not. If nothing is going on, we are bored. We have become accustomed to a world in which movement, change, and entertainment are the norm. And on screens, it can become hyperstimulating. As a result, when things slow down, we don’t pay as much attention.

The next time you are standing in a line or waiting for an airplane, look around and try and find people who are not staring at a screen. Doing “nothing” is uncommon. We need to force ourselves to stop and pay attention to our surroundings. Maybe that is why so many adults are finding their way to yoga and meditation. They need to structure a way to do something while having their mind do nothing. Many parents describe their children as frequently being bored unless they are engaged with a digital device. This is particularly true for parents whose kids have difficulty with attention and learning issues.

Parents of children with attention and learning issues face a difficult choice when it comes to allowing their children to play video games. Kids with short attention spans often have only a few areas where they are able to focus intently on an activity. Often, it is most difficult for kids with ADHD to focus on undesirable activities. And it’s not just about motivation. There is compelling evidence for this attention struggle to be brain-based. Video-game play may represent one of a limited number of activities in which kids with ADHD report a sense of accomplishment and sustain their persistence toward achieving a goal. However, when video games become a primary interest for children with attention difficulties, it can be exceedingly difficult to get them to transition from playing video games to participating in other activities.

Conversely, video games display many of the features that help children pay attention and stay on task, including the immediacy of feedback and the capacity to match challenges to a child’s current expertise. Because video games, apps, and other digital technologies engage the sustained attention and focus of children, they can be powerful tools for learning. To make them the most helpful, you need to know how to choose the best games, how to limit them appropriately, and how to transfer game-based skills into real-world skills.

Getting the Most Out of Video Games

The following are real-world approaches that can help parents get the most out of their child's interest in video games:

Sean Stone/Unsplash
Source: Sean Stone/Unsplash

Play active games. Choose active games. Research shows that physical activity can affect brain chemistry in a positive way, boosting children’s capacity for focus and working memory through the production of BDNF (brain-derived neurotrophic factors), proteins in the brain that can help to enhance memory and attention. Consider having your children play these games before they do their homework to increase their ability to attend and focus after gameplay.

Set meaningful limits on the amount of time your kids are involved with digital technologies. A good rule of thumb for children with learning and attention issues is the following:

  • Preschoolers: limited and supervised time only.
  • Elementary-school students: 1 to 1.5 hours per day, including television time.
  • Middle-school students: 1.5 to 2 hours per day, including television and cell phone time.
  • High-school students: 2 to 2.5 hours per day, with negotiation based upon the use of technology for academic needs.

Provide a diverse selection of apps and digital technologies. Find engaging apps that support weak academic skills. Children who love playing video games might also like to master apps such as Evernote, Dragon Dictation, or Google Drive, which can help with school and attention issues. These types of apps are particularly useful for children who have problems with organization, planning, or time management.

Play action video games. Games such as "Plants vs. Zombies 2" that involve fast-paced decision-making have been demonstrated to improve selective attention and the capacity to identify relevant and important details. Not all action games are violent in nature, and younger kids should not be allowed to play T- and M-rated games. There are dozens of studies suggesting that action gamers are more attentive than nongamers, suggesting that this could be an intervention where video games improve attention.

Model and teach your children to do nothing. I am not advocating becoming a slug and never moving or doing anything. Instead, learn how to be mindful and attentive to the present moment and encourage your kids to do the same. Find no-screen activities where you use all your senses. Take a walk by the ocean and feel the sand, smell the water, listen to the waves, and look at the sunrise or sunset. Or just look out the window when going for a drive, noticing and attending to the outside world rather than staring at your phone. Check out the book The Art of Noticing for some other great ideas on paying attention.

While it’s helpful if specific screentime can enhance selective attention, it’s far more important to learn how to attend to the task at hand.


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