As the prevalence of technology increases, so does the studies on what it’s doing to our brains. On May 9th 2011 the NY Times published an article titled, “Fixated by Screens, but Seemingly Nothing Else.” The article described a concern many parents are having: their children can’t seem to focus on anything for any length of time, except for the television or computer screen. They’re asking, why do my children, with so many signs and symptoms of ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder), have no difficulty focusing on the television for so long? Many studies have ensued to explore this very issue.
Scientists have discovered that a child’s ability to stay focused only on a screen is actually characteristic of ADHD. But the question becomes, is the child’s obsession with the screen causative or correlative – or both? Dr.Christopher Lucas, associate professor at New York University School of Medicine says that the type of concentration a child brings to the television, computer or video games, is not the same type of concentration that allows one to be successful in school or real life. He elaborates that their focus on the screen is “sustained attention with frequent intermittent rewards” opposed to real life concentration of “sustained attention in the absence of rewards.”
The high of video games and their frequent intermittent rewards provides the brain with a rush of dopamine. Those with ADHD may have a dopamine deficit, causing those children to more easily become hooked. One study, as noted in the NY Times, sited that when an ADHD patient is treated with methylphenidate (Ritalin), which increases dopamine activity in the brain, they played video games less. Thus indicating the likelihood that these children with ADHD are actually self-medicating with video games.
On the flip side, some research has indicated that those who play video games more often, both children and college undergrads, are actually more likely to develop attention problems later. They said that due to the quick pacing of video games and their frequent rewards, those that play them often may find real life to be boring and under-stimulating.
Elizabeth Lorch, professor of psychology at University of Kentucky found that children with ADHD were able to recall facts from a televised story but not the narratives. This not only creates problems academically, but sheds light on possible social difficulties due to their inability to see causal relations. Some of these kids are rejected by their peers, quite possibly due to their inability to understand and connect with the people around them. This can create a self-perpetuating loop, running kids back to the video games, increasing their social detachment and causing further difficulties in focusing their attention in the future.
Solutions? Monitor the amount of time your children spend in front of the screen. Try creating an environment of more frequent rewards. And if you suspect your child does have ADHD, have them see a physician or a pediatrician. It may be appropriate for a child to be on a small dose of mediation and have a stronger, healthier social lifestyle than to be in front of a screen self-medicating all day.