Video games and impaired attention: a vicious circle

April, 2012

A large, long-running study suggests both that children with attention difficulties tend to spend more time playing video games, and that extensive video game playing is bad for attention.

A three-year study involving 3,034 Singaporean children and adolescents (aged 8-17) has found that those who spent more time playing video games subsequently had more attention problems, even when earlier attention problems, sex, age, race, and socioeconomic status were statistically controlled. Those who were more impulsive or had more attention problems subsequently spent more time playing video games, even when initial video game playing was statistically controlled. These findings suggest that the cause-effect relationship between video game playing and attention problems/impulsiveness goes both ways.

While the particular content may have an effect on attention problems and impulsiveness (violent games appeared to be an additional, independent, factor in attention problems), it was the total time spent that was more important.

Participants completed questionnaires about their video game playing habits annually for three years running. They also completed questionnaires aimed to measure attention and impulsiveness (the Current ADHD Symptoms Scale Self-Report, and the Barratt Impulsiveness Scale-11, respectively). Regarding attention, the children answered questions such as how often they "fail to give close attention to details or make careless mistakes" in their work or "blurt out answers before questions have been completed." For the impulsivity test, they selected points they felt described themselves, such as "I often make things worse because I act without thinking" or "I concentrate easily."

How does this finding relate to other evidence showing that playing video games can improve visual attention for rapid and accurate recognition of information from the environment? The answer lies in the different nature of attention — the attention needed for visual search differs in important ways from the attention necessary for sustained concentration in contexts that are often effortful and/or boring.

The example of many attention-challenged individuals makes this more understandable. Many parents of children with ADHD find that the only thing their child can concentrate on for a lengthy period is video games. The answer to that riddle is the rapidly changing nature of video games, and the way they are designed to grab the attention, with flashing lights and loud noises and moving images etc. The young person is not, therefore, improving their ability to focus in a way that is helpful for the school environment, or indeed for everyday life.

Unfortunately, this study suggests that it is precisely those people who are most in need of such ‘external supports’ for attention (‘grabbing’ stimuli such as lights and sounds and movement) — that is, those individuals who are least able to control their own attention — who are most likely to spend a lot of time playing such games. The games then weaken their attentional control even more, and so the cycle continues.

So this research answers the question ADHD parents tend to have: should I encourage my child to play video games a lot (given that it’s the only thing that holds their attention) or not? The answer, unfortunately, would seem to be: not. However, all is not lost. There are computer ‘games’ that are designed to help those with ADHD learn to concentrate in a way that is more useful (see the Topic collection on ADHD for more on this).

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends one hour per day of total media screen time (including TV, DVDs, video games, Internet, iPad, etc.) for children in elementary school, and two hours for children in secondary school.

Reference: 

Gentile, D.A., Swing, E.L., Lim, C.G. & Khoo, A. 2012. Video game playing, attention problems, and impulsiveness: Evidence of bidirectional causality. Psychology of Popular Media Culture, Vol 1(1), Jan 2012, 62-70. doi: 10.1037/a0026969

Full text available at http://www.apa.org/pubs/journals/releases/ppm-1-1-62.pdf

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