ADHD and screen time

Interesting article in Science Times yesterday on the relationship between time spent in front of screens (especially video games) and kids having ADHD.  It’s really a great case study of trying to figure out cauasality in ambiguous circumstances.  Does the screen time cause ADHD (a nice naive hypothesis, but I’m far from sold), or does the ADHD actually cause more screen time (an equally, if not more plausible, argument).  I took extra interest in this as I’ve got a son with ADHD who loves his screen time (and also struggles with social skills, as do many ADHD kids).  The deal:

In fact, a child’s ability to stay focused on a screen, though not anywhere else, is actually characteristic of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. There are complex behavioral and neurological connections linking screens and attention, and many experts believe that these children do spend more time playing video games and watching television than their peers.

But is a child’s fascination with the screen a cause or an effect of attention problems — or both? It’s a complicated question that researchers are still struggling to tease out…

The child may be playing for points accumulated, or levels achieved, but the brain’s reward may be the release of the neurotransmitter dopamine. Children with A.D.H.D. may find video games even more gratifying than other children do because their dopamine reward circuitry may be otherwise deficient.

Indeed, at least one study has found that when children with A.D.H.D. were treated with methylphenidate (Ritalin), which increases dopamine activity in the brain, they played video games less. The authors suggested that video games might serve as a kind of self-medication for these children.

So increased screen time may be a consequence of A.D.H.D., but some researchers fear it may be a cause, as well. Some studies have found that children who spend more time in front of the screen are more likely to develop attention problems later on.

In a 2010 study in the journal Pediatrics, viewing more television and playing more video games were associated with subsequent attention problems in both schoolchildren and college undergraduates…

Her co-author Richard Milich, also a professor of psychology at the University of Kentucky, suggested that besides the primary implications of this problem for academic performance, this finding may also shed light on social difficulties.

“This inability to see causal relations may affect this social problem we’ve known for 30 years,” he said. “These kids have dramatic social problems. They’re highly rejected by their peers.”

It may be a self-perpetuating loop, experts say: Children who have trouble with their social skills may be thrown back even more to the screen for electronic companionship.

In my son’s case, I don’t think it is about electronic companionship (though, it would be great if he had more time to spend time with friends)– I’m pretty sure he gets a huge dopamine kick from video games.  There’s been times when I’ve compared him to a crack addict when it comes to his compulsive need for video games.  I’m sure he’ll always really love video games, but at least while he lives at home (presumably another 7 years or so) we can (and do) limit the time.


About Steve Greene
Professor of Political Science at NC State

2 Responses to ADHD and screen time

  1. Kathy says:

    Have you ever tried to remove all screen time completely for an extended period, like several week? If so, and assuming you didn’t treat like a punishment or child specific (meaning you did it for the entire family as a healthy life change)
    did you notice any difference?

    • Steve Greene says:

      Nope. Regardless of how presented, would never be perceived as anything but a punishment. It would also mean telling my son with autism that he could have no screen time. I’d rather try to convince him I need to cut off one of his toes.

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