Do Video Games and the Internet Cause ADHD?

This blog article is a way to begin discussion about a topic of interest to many teachers. It is not presented as academic research, but the author has taken care to check sources cited.

Boy Playing a Video Game

The research cited here was performed at Iowa State University. The actual research paper, “Video Game Playing, Attention Problems, and Impulsiveness: Evidence of Bidirectional Causality” can be found here. It was published in Psychology of Popular Media Culture 2012, Vol. 1, No. 1, 62–70.

There has been discussion among teachers that a big uptick in SPED referrals is being caused by student use of computer games and the Internet. The research at Iowa State University shows that indeed, there is a measurable link. Green & Bavalier, 2003 noted that some visual attention could be improved for students who play video games, but it is noted that visual attention is not the same thing as attention that influences school and learning (62).

There are four hypotheses that may help us organize the study of increases in SPED referral and student use of electronic media.

  1. Excitement hypothesis
  2. Displacement hypothesis
  3. Attraction hypothesis
  4. Third variable hypothesis

Very briefly, the excitement hypothesis proposes that electronic screen media may make other activities (e.g., work or school) seem less interesting by comparison. Displacement hypothesis says exposure to electronic media may take up time that could be used for schoolwork. A third possibility is that individuals who have attention problems are more attracted to electronic media—the attraction hypothesis. The last suggests there is a third variable such as sex or age that may explain this association. However, studies included variables like sex and other factors, steering us away from the last hypothesis.

boy and a girl playing video game

The study included 3,034 children from 12 different schools in Singapore with a 99% response rate. This is a reasonably large sample from which to derive good data. The measurement of average weekly video game playing as a benchmark showed strong test–retest correlations. Participants indicated how many hours they played video games during each of three times (morning, afternoon, and evening) on a typical school day and on a typical weekend. Then, they calculated the average weekly video game playing time.

Participants completed the Current ADHD Symptoms Scale Self-Report. Participants also completed 14 items from the Barratt Impulsiveness Scale-11. Consistent with most previous research, this study found video game playing is associated with greater subsequent attention problems, even when earlier attention problems were statistically controlled.

It seems we have been witnessing a real phenomenon in increased special education referrals and placements. Based on my general observation, diagnoses of ADD and ADHD are on the rise. Diagnoses of conditions like Asperger’s and other forms of autism are also on the rise. For the past 30 years, most of the research on attention problems has focused on biological and genetic factors rather than on environmental factors. Many believe that there are other environmental influences. By identifying and studying those factors, we can create a more detailed picture of the problem to create effective solutions for schools.

More research needs to be done, but teachers must pay increased attention to student activities after school and in study halls. Those ubiquitous mobile devices may be part of the reason for increases in SPED referrals.

To read more about this:

The paradox: can we use video games to help treat attention deficits?

Add to our list of resources, help guide this blog and tell me about your challenges. I may feature your class or school in upcoming blog entries.


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