Some kids seem to represent a paradox when it comes to attention: they fidget in their seats, can’t focus at school, but will tune into the TV for hours at a stretch. Their focus when it comes to video games is laser-like. Their ability to focus on homework, not so much.
What is going on with these children? Are they just slackers who won’t pay attention in class, even though they could? No.
Turns out, an ability to hyper-focus on electronic screens is part and parcel of ADHD. Those kids who can’t pay attention to anything else have specialized brain chemistry that makes them zero in on electronic media.
The relationship between attention deficits and electronic screen time is complex. It’s not clear if screen time causes attention problems or if attention problems cause a fascination with screens, or both. The New York Times attempts to pick the puzzle apart with an article on screen time and attention disorders.
First, you need to understand that paying attention to a video game is not like paying attention to anything else. Anyone who’s played Angry Birds knows this, but the New York Times explains a bit about why:
The kind of concentration that children bring to video games and television is not the kind they need to thrive in school or elsewhere in real life, according to Dr. Christopher Lucas, associate professor of child psychiatry at New York University School of Medicine. “It’s not sustained attention in the absence of rewards,” he said. “It’s sustained attention with frequent intermittent rewards.”
Children with attention deficits can often pay attention to a video game for hours. In fact, studies show that kids with attention issues spend more time on electronic media than others.
Some researchers think kids with attention deficits seek out more electronic media because it feeds their need for rewards. Kids with ADHD suffer a shortage of dopamine in their brains. Video games trigger the release of dopamine with frequent small rewards within the game. This is alluring for kids in general, but especially compelling for kids who had insufficient dopamine to begin with.
On the flip side, there’s the notion that tuning your brain into the fast-paced, overstimulating world of TV and video games leaves you spinning at too high a frequency and unable to focus on the real world. In this theory, video games are part of the problem, not just a symptom of it.
Whether screen time causes ADHD or not, kids with ADHD certainly react differently to screens. Not only do they spend more time in front of them, but they’re less able to parse what’s going on. In particular, kids with attention problems can’t understand why characters in TV shows behave the way they do.
Researchers think this last detail might be key to understanding the social problems that plague kids with ADHD. They’re aware that kids with attention issues also have trouble making friends, but don’t know why. Learning more about how they get information from TV might offer insight into that problem.
It also helps further account for the heavy use of screens by kids with ADHD. They have fewer social interactions, so they spend more time along in front of a screen.
Nowhere in this is there any indication that TV or video games are doing anything good for kids, with or without attention problems.
Do you see a link between attention issues and screen use in your own family?
Photo: Rebecca Pollard