Extra video game usage worsens existing attention problems in impulsive kids

A new study is the first to show that kids with attention deficits play more video games, which worsens the attention problems they were born with. Unfortunately, they are especially strongly drawn to the stimulation of games that end up pulling them into a downward spiral of more screen time and then even greater disruption of neurological function. Previous studies have shown that screen time increases attention problems, but this is the first that shows that those who start with attention problems are more likely to be exposed to screen time that compounds their neurological vulnerability.

“Children with greater impulsiveness and attention problems spend more time playing video games, which in turn increases subsequent attention problems and impulsiveness.”

— From Douglas A. Gentile et al.’s “Video Game Playing, Attention Problems, and Impulsiveness:  Evidence of Bidirectional Causality” in Psychology of Popular Media Culture, January 2012 (Vol. 1 No. 1.)

ADHD develops in children not merely as a consequence of genetic make-up. Environment can be an influence on its expression and severity, too. The study authors note that not enough research has been done on environmental factors that influence attention and impulse control.

“For the past 30 years, most of the research on attention problems has focused on biological and genetic factors rather than on environmental factors. This allowed for rapid advances in drug therapies, but has also caused many researchers and members of the general public to assume that impulsivity and attention problems were not modifiable by experience. This is unfortunate, as it means we have only focused on part of the solution. Furthermore, many problems with genetic bases are clearly enhanced by environmental triggers. By understanding some of the environmental influences, we can develop more effective solutions for children and parents. More research is clearly needed on the environmental factors, especially factors that are easily modified by parents, such as screen time.”

This study mentions four possible explanations for the association of electronic media and greater attention problems, an association that has been shown in other studies.

  • Children accustomed to the greater excitement level of playing video games may have more trouble focusing on much less stimulating tasks, such as school work or chores.
  • Time spent with video games displaces time that might have been spent developing greater impulse control.
  • Kids with poorer self-control may find it harder to resist the pull of exciting screen time.
  • As-yet unidentified factors that may be hidden within the data already assessed

I’ve got a fifth explanation: Could it be that kids with attention problems are more likely to have visually induced seizures from video games? And that the seizures, which leave behind cognitive impairments, create additional deficits in attention? Individuals with ADHD develop epilepsy at a rate that is 2.5 higher than the general population. About 20 percent of individuals with epilepsy have ADHD, whereas about 4 – 8 percent of the general population do. This higher prevalence in both directions suggests some common neurological weaknesses and/or processes.

Nobody has ever studied the sensitivity of kids with ADHD to seizures from video games. Just as kids on the autism spectrum deserve a study on their vulnerability to video game seizures, so do kids with ADHD. Some real data would allow parents of these kids to be more vigilant about video game exposure and to be watching more carefully for possible after-effects of gaming.

Gentile and colleagues noted that one predictor of increased attention problems, in addition to the total amount of screen time, was video game violence. They speculate that this might support the theory of screen time displacing time that could be spent learning impulse control. Because these are psychology (not medical) researchers, and because they want to get away from the biological model, they don’t raise the issue of neurological overload and/or seizures as a possible cause of declining attention capacity. But thinking about it in terms of the neurological impact on a kid with ADHD is certainly consistent with the influence of screen violence on attention. Violent games are apt to involve higher levels of visual stimulation, with the flashes of explosions, crashes, and assorted dismemberment scenarios.

What do you think?

3 Comments on “Extra video game usage worsens existing attention problems in impulsive kids”

  1. Gabriella Ashford says:

    Is there any studies on kids who were breath-holders as babies? The idea that a child could be “normal” and having these seizures is interesting. What are the symptoms of these hidden seizures?

    • jsolodar says:

      The symptoms could be quite different from one person to another, depending on which areas of the brain are affected. Seizure symptoms such as staring or facial movements, while facing a game screen, can easily go unnoticed by others. The person might feel some tingling or strange sensations, fumble a bit, notice temporary vision distortion, or start coughing. In addition there are seizures that are sub-clinical, meaning that although they register on an EEG, there are no noticeable symptoms. I’m not aware of studies on breath-holders. I just looked at one site that says breath-holding does not lead to epilepsy or brain damage: http://www.childrenscolorado.org/news/publications/shine/summer_08/breath-holder.aspx

    • Gabriella Ashford says:

      My 5th grader is doing a project for the science fair on EEG results and kids. Do you happen to know of any
      EEG databases of children in 5th grade (10-11)?

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