Autistic, ADHD Kids and Addictive Gaming

Video game addiction is rapidly gaining support as a legitimate issue, and a University of Missouri in Columbia study has revealed it may be related to conditions such as autism spectrum disorder and attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).

While most people think of addictions in terms of substances, behaviors such as gambling or even shopping can lead people into compulsions just like alcohol or drugs.

Understanding the basics of addictive gaming and what the recent study found helps parents—particularly those of kids already struggling with psychological issues—determine whether a gaming hobby is really as harmless as it seems.

Video Game Addiction, Autism and ADHD

Video game addiction essentially works like most other behavioral addictions. While it’s easy to understand the physical grasp of addiction when an ingested chemical causes the effect, it’s important to understand that drugs of addiction ultimately work through their similarity to natural brain chemicals or their ability to stimulate their release. So playing video games can become addictive due to the effect it has on the player’s brain—and just like a stereotypical problematic drug user, compulsive players may neglect their school commitments and turn down offers to spend time with friends in order to spend more time with their favorite game.

Previous research has indicated that children with ADHD are much more likely to display signs of problematic video game use than kids with typical development, and those with autism have more difficulty disengaging from games when they start playing them. ADHD is typified by problems with impulse control, hyperactivity and retaining focus, whereas children on the autism spectrum have difficulty with social interactions and communication, and usually a have repetitive pattern of interests.

Longer Play-time for ADHD and Autistic Kids

Doctors Micah Mazurek and Christopher Engelhardt investigated the link between ADHD, autism and computer games more qualitatively. They asked parents of children with the conditions (as well as some with typical development) about their video game use, the types of games played, whether they had consoles in their rooms and the severity of their symptoms. There were roughly equal numbers of each of the three groups of children studied, although only about 50 of each, making the study relatively limited in sample size. The researchers mathematically controlled for the differences, but it’s worth mentioning that children with normal development included in the study were considerably more likely to live in households with an income of over $80,000 and where their parents were still married.

The researchers found that kids with typical development played games for 1.2 hours per day, whereas those with autism spectrum disorder played 2.1 hours per day (almost twice as much) and those with ADHD played 1.7 hours per day. Accordingly, kids with the conditions also scored higher on a testing system for problematic video game playing. This general finding is in agreement with previous studies, but the researchers also found that kids with ADHD or autism spectrum disorder were also much more likely to have a console in their rooms (meaning notably increased access), as well as uncovering a weak link between problem video gaming and titles of the “role playing” genre.

The Role of Role-Playing Games

The researchers looked at the genres of games the participants were playing, and surprisingly found that role-playing games are a particular predictor of problematic video game playing, especially for those with autism spectrum disorder. Both kids with ADHD and autism played more role-playing games (and less of genres such as shooters, which were popular with typically-developed kids), arguably vindicating existing concerns with regard to the addictive potential of these games—especially multiplayer versions played online.

The appeal of role-playing games for kids with inherent difficulties fitting in at school is clear if you understand the games themselves. They virtually revolve around the player taking the “role” of a hero, or more basically, being somebody else, often someone with special powers or significant abilities. If this was a factor, it may explain why kids with autism spectrum disorder spend over three times longer playing these types of games than kids with ordinary development. They mentally venture out of the chaotic, confusing real world and into one in which interactions are more structured and easily interpretable. More importantly, in terms of addictive potential, the games are generally open-ended, with extensive “leveling up” (improving your characters’ attributes, gaining new skills, etc.) systems, which reward long-term play. Additionally, in massive multiplayer online role-playing games (MMORPGs, like World of Warcraft), the interaction with other human player and longer “quest” times (a single in-game mission) may contribute to their addictiveness.

When Games Threaten Well-Being

While the research on this rapidly evolving field is valuable, there are some important limitations to the findings. The fact that parents were the ones who reported the game-playing time is an issue because there is a notable chance of underestimation, especially for those who allow consoles in their kids’ bedrooms. It isn’t outside of the realms of possibility that some kids would play even when they’re supposed to be sleeping. A final issue is that parents of kids with conditions like ADHD and autism spectrum disorder may rely on video game consoles to keep them entertained and maintain a harmonious household more than parents of kids with typical development, therefore contributing to the observed correlation.

For parents, the ideal way to combat the risks of video game addiction isn’t always easy to determine, especially if your kids have diagnosed psychological conditions. However, thinking about whether your child has difficulty completing school work as a result or shuns personal engagements in favor of playing video games can give you an idea of whether your kid’s playing is becoming an issue. Psychological support can help them remove their reliance on video games, but if they have a deeper issue they may require medication or more intensive interventions.

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