When Video Gaming Gets Too Serious

Problematic video gaming in boys with autism and ADHD more common than in other boys

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Robert Carlson, M.D

(RxWiki News) Video games can be great for having fun, and they can even help develop spatial and problem-solving skills. But too much of a good thing might be a problem for some kids.

According to a new small study, too much video gaming was even more likely to be a problem for boys with autism or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).

The study found that boys with autism spent almost twice as much time each day playing video games than boys without autism did.

Boys with autism or ADHD also showed more problematic (addictive) video game behaviors, the researchers found.

"Consider limiting children's daily video gaming."

This study, led by Micah O. Mazurek, PhD, of the Departments of Health Psychology and Psychological Sciences at the University of Missouri at Columbia, looked at video game use in children with autism or ADHD.

The researchers gave extensive questionnaires to the parents of boys aged 8 to 18. Of these children, 56 had autism spectrum disorder, 44 had ADHD and 41 were typically developing with neither autism nor ADHD.

The questions asked related to how often the boys played video games daily, whether they had video games in their bedrooms and the types of video games they liked to play.

The questions also included information related to autism symptoms and ADHD symptoms.

The researchers found that boys with autism played video games almost twice as much as typically developing boys.

While typically developing boys played an average 1.2 hours a day, boys with autism played an average 2.1 hours a day.

The children with ADHD played an average of 1.7 hours a day. After the researchers took into account other factors that could influence how much time kids spent playing, they found that the children with ADHD were not much different than the autistic or typically developing groups in terms of the time spent playing video games.

However, even after these factors were considered for the other groups, the boys with autism still played video games significantly longer than the typically developing boys. Other lifestyle or home factors did not explain the extra time autistic boys spent playing.

Boys who had autism or ADHD were also more likely to have a video game console in their bedrooms than the typically developing boys were.

It was not clear whether these boys had games in their rooms because they played more often, or whether they played more often because the games were in their rooms (or both).

When the researchers analyzed the parents' responses related to problematic, or addictive, video gaming behaviors, they found that boys with autism or ADHD had more of these behaviors than typically developing boys did.

Then the researchers compared the symptoms of the boys to their likelihood of having problematic gaming habits.

Problematic video game behaviors include being unable to stop playing, becoming irritable or aggressive if someone interrupts playing, having grades suffer because of playing, losing sleep and similar problems.

In their analyses, the researchers took into account other factors that might influence kids' video game use, including household income, parents' marital status and how much time the boys spent playing video games.

The more the boys showed symptoms related to inattention, the more likely it was that they also had problematic video game behaviors.

Among the boys with autism, those who preferred role-playing games were more likely to have problematic gaming behaviors than the other boys.

The researchers also noted that the time spent by autistic boys playing video games was greater than what the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends for combined screen time each day.

"These results suggest that children with [autism] and those with ADHD may be at particularly high risk for significant problems related to video game play, including excessive and problematic video game use," the authors wrote.

"Children with [autism] and those with ADHD experience difficulties with impulse control and response inhibition, and these problems appear to be closely related to video game preoccupation," the authors wrote.

However, there are limitations of the study which may lead parents to wait before snatching the video game console away from their children, according to Glen Elliott, MD, PhD, a clinical professor at the Stanford University Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences and a dailyRx expert.

“The authors address a question of significant importance to many parents of children with either autism or ADHD: are video games harmful?" Dr. Elliott said. "They present their data in a way that might cause the reader to conclude that the answer is a firm 'yes,'" 

But he notes an important limitation of the study.

"As the authors note in a single sentence near the end of the discussion, this is a correlational study, so it is impossible to attribute cause and effect," Dr. Elliott said. "Is problematic video game use an outgrowth of high rates of usage or a reflection of the inattention, impulsivity and poor impulse control common to both ADHD and autism?"

The question of what causes what also exists for other aspects of the study, Dr. Elliott said.

"Is the higher likelihood of these individuals having a video game system in their room a problem or a reflection that children with ADHD and autism are less likely to have outside friendships and other activities so perhaps more prone to spend time alone in their rooms playing games?" he said.

"The authors certainly provide rich data for consideration, but much more and different types of research are needed to answer the question they posed about harm from letting children with autism or ADHD play video games," Dr. Elliott said.

"In the meantime, parents should look at what happens with their child when he or she plays," he said. "If it makes behaviors worse, video games may be a bad idea; if behavior improves or seems unaffected, play probably is not an issue.”

The study was published July 29 in the journal Pediatrics.

The research was funded by a grant from the University of Missouri Research Board. The authors declared no conflicts of interest.

Reviewed by: 
Review Date: 
July 25, 2013
Last Updated:
July 29, 2013