Grade schoolers and young adults who play lots of video games are more likely to have ADHD or other attention problems, according to new research in Pediatrics. Does that mean it's time to yank the game controller? Maybe, maybe not. Here's why.
There's plenty of data showing that TV time doesn't help young children, and may be distracting them from what they really should be doing--which is playing and interacting with people. A few studies show that preschoolers who watch lots of TV are more likely to have ADHD, but cause and effect hasn't been proven. (It could be, for example, that kids who have short attention spans are more drawn to TV than others.) Although some studies have explored the link between violent TV shows and aggressive behavior, there's been very little research on video games and ADHD, surprising because every teenage boy I know seems to be glued to games like "Grand Theft Auto" and "Halo."
So a team led by researchers at Iowa State University looked at how video games affect attention and ADHD. They found that both children (most of the 1,323 kids surveyed were ages 8 to 11) and young adults (most of the 210 polled were between 18 and 24) had more attention problems if they played more video games. The same was true if they watched more TV. The children who exceeded the two hours of daily screen time recommended by the American Academy of Pediatrics were more likely to have attention problems.
Again, this study doesn't prove that TV and video games cause ADHD. The researchers did try to tease that out by checking on the school-aged children's attention problems 13 months later. Children who had clocked the most screen time during the previous year were most likely to have attention problems, they found. But enough studies have found this correlation that parents of kids with heavy TV and video-game habits might want to think twice.
So what's a parent to do? Here are three simple steps to help reduce the negative exposure of TV and video games on children, based on interviews with researchers:
- Adopt the two-hour-a-day limit on screen time from the American Academy of Pediatrics as the daily maximum dose, not the baseline. Many parents make weekdays TV-free; others reward good behavior with a small dose of video games. Treat screen time as a privilege, not a right.
- Consider the content of what your kids are watching. Many video games and TV shows are violent and sexually explicit, even shows on broadcast TV. There is plenty of evidence that these shows have a bad influence on children's behavior and self image.
- Play the games your children play, and watch their shows. Not only will you then be well-equipped to make decisions on whether the content is appropriate, you can discuss it with them. Diane Levin, coauthor of So Sexy So Soon, told me that explaining to your children why you are bothered by sex and violence on TV not only helps them understand why you're imposing rules, it helps them learn how to set limits of their own, and explain such limits to their friends.