Parents of children who play a lot of video games can breathe a sigh of relief: gaming won't cause or intensify their child's ADHD symptoms. "We found no negative consequences for children who spent more time gaming," says Professor Frode Stenseng at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology's (NTNU)Department of Education and Lifelong Learning. A research group at NTNU has looked at the relationship between children's use of electronic games and possible associations with ADHD or emotional problems. In a previous study, where researchers looked at screen usage in general, they found a link between a lot of screen usage and children's problems with reading their own and other people's feelings. However, more time spent gaming does not appear to increase symptoms of ADHD, anxiety, or depression as they age from 6 to 10 years. Nor do children with these emotional problems game much more than others.
Researchers behind this study actually found a reverse effect. Children who already have multiple ADHD symptoms increase their gaming more than other children do, at least from age 8 to age 10. This can have several causes.
Children with ADHD often receive a lot of criticism in the form of corrections from teachers, parents and peers. They're told to pay attention, listen and cooperate with others. But in gaming they can experience mastery on their own terms."
Professor Frode Stenseng at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology's (NTNU)Department of Education and Lifelong Learning
Senior researcher Beate W. Hygen at NTNU Social Research concurs. "A lot of games are designed so that you advance quickly and get better at the game while being challenged. This can lead to strong mastery experiences." Hygen is also a postdoctoral fellow in NTNU's Department of Psychology.
The research team has not looked directly at the mastery experience in this study, but gaming may simply have a positive effect on children with ADHD.
It may be that video games work for you if you have a more restless brain than other kids. In many games, a lot happens in a short amount of time, and you're jumping from one situation to the next in quick succession. In these games, it isn't necessarily a disadvantage to have trouble concentrating on one or a few things for long periods of time.
The fact that children with ADHD game more may also have social causes. "Gaming is a very social activity for a lot of kids, and gamers often operate with slightly different social codes than in the real world," says Hygen.
A lot of games offer a sense of community, and children who might otherwise have trouble making friends can find friends online. "If you struggle a little socially, getting to know people may be easier online than in the real world since you're judged differently. In gaming you meet people with similar interests and everyone has a common focus - the game," says Hygen.
Many games also provide opportunities to practise cooperative skills. Fortnite and Counter-Strike are good examples - people work in teams and rely on planning, quick decisions and good communication under highly stressful conditions.
Video games can offer a kind of escape from reality. There isn't necessarily anything wrong with that, as long as children also find time for more physical forms of expression in other contexts. The research literature suggests that more than 30 hours per week of gaming is a lot.
"But," Stenseng reassures parents, "a lot of top athletes also spend a lot of time on screens." There are obviously other reasons why children shouldn't spend the whole day in front of a screen. But sometimes it's okay for kids to totally unwind, and that allows parents to take care of their own phone, tablet or TV screen-time needs, too.
The research group looked at 791 children who had been followed for several years as part of the long-term Trondheim Early Secure Study. They investigated the children's gaming habits when they were 6, 8 and 10 years old. "The kids who played a lot of video games when they were 6 years old didn't necessarily do it as much later. Children don't become confirmed gamers until later," says Stenseng.
This changes as children get a little older.
"Children who play a lot of video games when they're 8 years old often continue the habit as 10-year olds. The kids who play a lot at that age may be developing a gamer identity during this period," Stenseng says. This development may have social causes as well, but the research group has not yet looked at that aspect.
Stenseng, F., et al. (2020) Time spent gaming and psychiatric symptoms in childhood: cross-sectional associations and longitudinal effects. European Child & Adolescent Psychiatry. doi.org/10.1007/s00787-019-01398-2.