“Mom, I have to tell you something,” my 12-year-old said with his head down, not looking at me.
“Uh oh, what is it? Did you do something bad?”
“Yes, really, really, really, really bad.”
“I took your credit card.”
“I charged some V-Bucks on Fortnite.” (Note: For those who may have been out of touch with pop culture between 2017 and 2020, Fortnite is a live video game that brings players from across the globe together to form teams and embark on adventures. While Fortnite claims to be “free,” it is supported by transactions allowing players to buy “V-Bucks,” the game’s internal currency. V-Bucks can be used to buy outfits and elements to enhance the game, such as costumes known as “skins,” pickaxes, gliders, etc.)
“Oh wow, OK. Do you know how much you charged?”
“Maybe 18 or 20 dollars? Maybe then, after that, another $7? Then…I dunno, another $5? But that’s it. I’m really sorry, Mom.”
“OK, let me check my credit card statement, and then we’ll discuss what happened and the consequences. I appreciate you telling me, honey, that was very brave.”
I immediately regretted my choice to be “understanding mom”, as it turns out that the actual total on my credit card was $448.46! How could that happen? How could my typically sweet, honest, and empathetic child (he even received the “Empathy Award” in the 6th grade) – my “well-behaved” son (with all due respect to my other, somewhat more spirited son) – do something so out of character and costly?
To understand what had happened, I had to look at the bigger picture.
My son received an ADHD diagnosis at the age of 11, leading me to ponder a series of interconnected questions. Is there a chance that gaming had an impact on or exacerbated his ADHD? Did his strong interest in Fortnite possibly inspire and encourage him to exhibit new behaviors? Could it be that Fortnite became a highly engaging focus of his intense hyperfocus, a trait often seen in individuals with ADHD?
What is ADHD?
To examine the link between ADHD and gaming, it’s important to understand the disorder and the nuances within ADHD itself. ADHD is an acronym for Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder and is a chronic condition marked by persistent inattention, hyperactivity, and sometimes impulsivity. ADHD begins in childhood and often lasts into adulthood. As many as 2 out of every 3 children with ADHD continue to have symptoms as adults.
Symptoms of ADHD can differ from person to person, but there are three basic types of ADHD. Each one is identified by the symptoms of hyperactivity, impulsivity, and inattention. When the main symptoms are inattention, distraction, and disorganization, the type is usually called primarily inattentive. The symptoms of hyperactivity and possibly impulsiveness appear to diminish as children get older but are seen in the primarily hyperactive/impulsive type. The third type has some symptoms from each of the other two and is called the combined type.
ADHD is more common in boys, whose impulsivity and hyperactivity may appear as disruptive behavior. Inattentiveness is a hallmark of ADHD in girls, but because they aren’t often disruptive in the classroom, they may be harder to diagnose.
Symptoms of hyperactivity include:
- Being unable to sit still, particularly in circumstances that require it such as a classroom or restaurant
- Constantly fidgeting
- Inability to focus on tasks, especially those perceived as “boring” or not of interest
- Excessive physical movement (e.g. child running around during circle time, child who repeatedly gets up from the dinner table)
- Excessive talking (“hyper verbal” or “hyper vocal”)
- Inability to wait their turn
- Acting without thinking
- Excessive interrupting
- Little or no sense of danger
Symptoms of Inattentiveness/Distractibility include:
- Having a short attention span and being easily distracted
- Making careless mistakes – for example, in schoolwork
- Appearing forgetful or losing things
- Being unable to stick to tasks that are tedious or time-consuming
- Appearing to be unable to listen to or carry out instructions
- Constantly changing activity or task
- Having difficulty organizing tasks
These symptoms can cause problems in a child’s life at home and school, affecting social interactions (with children and adults), behavior (disciplinary issues), and schoolwork.
The Intersection of ADHD and Gaming
First, how does gaming intersect with these symptoms? Gaming demands sustained concentration, rapid decision-making, and, in the case of interactive games, necessitates cooperation, attentive listening, and teamwork.
What makes gaming sessions so engaging for children with ADHD? Several theories provide valuable insights into the reasons behind children with ADHD’s involvement in gaming.
Hyperfocus. One plausible explanation lies in a common symptom of ADHD – the capacity to “hyperfocus,” particularly when engaged in areas of personal interest. While tasks deemed “boring” or “tedious” may pose challenges for a child with ADHD to maintain attention, those aligned with their interests can enable them to hyperfocus for extended periods of time.
Stimulation. Another theory is that video games offer instant rewards, are generally fast-paced, and are visually exciting. The games might serve as a means for the child to independently hone new skills, find an escape from reality, and boost their self-esteem.
Social connections. Despite challenges forming relationships, online games allow them a way to make and keep friends, particularly since the interactions are brief and not in person.
Does Gaming Cause or Worsen ADHD?
If gaming provides an outlet for children with ADHD, a means for them to channel and “hyperfocus” their energy, what are the consequences when concerned parents observe their children gaming for long periods of time? Does gaming exacerbate ADHD symptoms? Moreover, is there a potential for gaming, when initiated at an early age, to trigger the development of ADHD?
According to Drew Lightfoot, the clinical director at Thriveworks in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and professor of healthcare research at La Salle University, “Individuals with ADHD are more prone to play video games more often, but this play does not cause ADHD,” he says.
Lightfoot explains, “ADHD is a neurological condition…which is caused by genetics.” Though researchers have yet to identify the exact mechanism(s) that causes ADHD, most experts believe it to be genetic.
Dr. Olivia Grace, a clinical psychologist who specializes in acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT) and cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) for video game addiction and internet gaming disorder at The Mindful Gamer agrees that video games can appeal to individuals with ADHD in numerous ways, explaining, “Video games these days typically bombard the player with achievements, rewards, and goals to accomplish within the first few moments of playing,” says Grace.
“Most actions within video games are fast paced, requiring intense focus and reaction time, which allow them to enter a deep state of focus that they find difficult to reach during any other activity.”
All these aspects of gaming may particularly appeal to people with ADHD, however there’s no clear, definitive link between playing video games and the development of ADHD in children.
In fact, there is evidence that video games and technology, in general, can benefit children and adults with ADHD. Some apps and computer programs have proven to be valuable tools for individuals with ADHD, aiding them in task organization, maintaining focus, and achieving their goals. Here are a few popular apps and websites that can make life easier for children and adult with ADHD:
Evernote allows you to quickly jot down the tasks for the week, keep up with your schedules, add reminders, or use it as a notepad. You can also use it as a note-taking app and save items you may want to pursue later, such as your favorite articles, websites, photos, videos, and more.
Brain Focus is a management app that will help you set up on-tasks and off-tasks time, especially when you need to focus. The app will silence your mobile device notifications, so distractions are not an option when you’re on a task.
This app will make sure you accomplish all your tasks by helping you come up with a task list along with its subtasks. It is a streamlined to-do-list app for individuals who might want to set reminders that are less subtle to be ignored. This handy app comes with features that allow the user to color-code tags, assign each task a due date, set goals, and save helpful information for later use.
MindNode allows analytical thinkers to create a virtual representation of their thoughts to help them brainstorm and execute their ideas. MindNode makes brainstorming and organizing your ideas in intuitive ways, such as images, links, and notes easier as they come to you to help people with ADHD to stay focused on the idea behind their thoughts.
Sleep Cycle automatically tracks your sleep patterns by listening to various sounds, including coughing and snoring, analyzes the audio recording of these sleep patterns with the help of learning algorithms then presents them to you in the form of data and graphs.
It’s reassuring to know that gaming and screentime doesn’t cause or exacerbate ADHD. Still, any activity where a child spends extended hours in front of a computer screen raises valid concerns. What proactive steps can parents take to establish healthy boundaries for screen time and gaming?
How Parents Can Manage Screentime
Here a few tips for parents on how to manage gaming and computer time:
Establish a structured schedule. Allocate screen time for your child once they have successfully completed their essential tasks, such as schoolwork, chores, and meals. This approach minimizes the temptation of unrestricted access to gaming or computer activities throughout the day.
Initiate a meeting with your child to collaboratively decide on a timeframe for video games. For instance, propose an arrangement for evenings from 6 to 7, following the completion of homework, to secure their buy-in and cooperation.
Use Parental Tools and Apps. For younger children, there are many tools that allow parents to turn off the internet connection to designated devices or block certain websites at specified times. Here are several good options:
Follow up screen time with physical activity. Teaching kids healthy behaviors about screen time can also translate to healthy behaviors in life. Pairing up a screen time activity with some kind of physical activity so that the physical activity follows the tech-based one. For example, after screen time is up, your child can choose from a list of physical activities like playing outside, bike riding, shooting baskets, dancing, or riding a scooter.
Put screens away. Follow the advice of experts by ensuring that all screens, including laptops and phones, are stored away a minimum of 90 minutes before bedtime. Lead by example to encourage your child to do the same, such as relocating your phone to a designated charging area in the kitchen downstairs. For an even more effective approach, consider investing in a “family charging station” and station it in a communal space like the kitchen or living room, where all family members’ phones are kept overnight.
If you’re curious about the outcome of the Fortnite incident involving my son charging V-Bucks a few years ago, I must admit that the details are somewhat hazy in my memory. As best as I can recall, I attempted to contact Fortnite for resolution, but the process was quite challenging as there was no readily available phone number, and the available online forms were not very user-friendly. To be completely honest, I can’t recall whether we eventually received a refund or not.
In a surprising turn of events, this year Epic Games, the company responsible for Fortnite, agreed to pay $245 million to settle FTC allegations related to in-game purchases. According to the FTC, the company charged parents and gamers of all ages for unwanted items and locked the accounts of customers who disputed wrongful charges with their credit card companies.
It was genuinely reassuring to discover that it wasn’t my son’s ADHD that led to him using my credit card, but rather, it was the engaging strategies employed by the makers of the video game, which prompted children to make purchases they might not have otherwise considered.
As a caring parent, it’s essential to set healthy boundaries, especially when you’re concerned about the impact of an activity on your child’s well-being or ADHD. With attentive guidance and clear guidelines, your child can embrace gaming in a way that is not only enjoyable but also safe.
Read more about ADHD and Technology
- How prevalent is ADHD in the US?
ADHD is among the most common mental conditions in children, with an estimated 6 million children ages 3 to 17 years having ever been diagnosed.
- What is the average age for an ADHD diagnosis?
The average age for an ADHD diagnosis is 7, but children with more severe ADHD are more commonly diagnosed at a younger age.