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ADHD/autism and video use

by on 2013/08/30

The media have been very interested in a recent research study that examined video game use in children with the developmental disorders Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) and Autistic Spectrum Disorder (Autism).  This interest, in part, seems to stem from the idea that video games are harmful – for example, the Daily Mail coverage repeatedly refers to ‘addiction’ when describing the study. There is also an underlying suggestion that excessive use may cause or at least contribute to the development of these disorders. The study, however, was not designed to assess these possibilities. But more importantly, taking another perspective, the coverage ignores the strategic growing use of technology by parents, teachers and caregivers of children with these disorders to maximise learning and social development. So is increased video game use in these children a sign of ‘addiction’ or otherwise negative to their development?

Micah O. Mazurek & Christopher R. Engelhardt (in press). Video Game Use in Boys With Autism Spectrum Disorder, ADHD, or Typical Development. Pediatrics. doi: 10.1542/peds.2012-3956

What did the study do? 

The study was conducted by a research group based at the University of Missouri (authors are Micah Mazurek and Christopher Engelhardt) and was published in the Journal Pediatrics.  The authors surveyed parents of children with ADHD and autism and those who are typically developing. The study included 56 children with autism, 44 with ADHD and 41 who were typically developing.

What were the findings?

Parents of children with autism reported their children to spend more time playing video games (on average 2.1 hours per day) than typically developing children (on average 1.2 hours per day). The children with ADHD did not differ significantly to either group (on average 1.7 hours per day so roughly in the middle of the two groups). The authors also reported that typically developing children were more likely than children with autism to prefer shooter games. Both children with ADHD and autism were more likely than typically developing children to have video games in their rooms and scored higher on a test for problematic video game use.

Any misconceptions in the media?    

The Daily Mail headline for this story was ‘Children with autism or ADHD spend twice as much time playing video games….’.  As described above, this conclusion is not accurate for the ADHD group. While the results were accurately reported within the body of the Daily Mail article, headlines are clearly what grab the attention of the reader.

Interestingly, none of the media articles on the story picked up on the finding that typically developing children were more likely than children with autism to prefer shooter games. It could actually be interpreted here that having autism is a protective factor against developing an interest in these types of games.

On a more general note, the tone of coverage seemed to suggest that greater computer use in children with autism has negative connotations, evidenced by frequent reference to ‘addiction’. There is a growing literature that suggests computer technology, such as iPads, can be used to actually promote social interactions in children with autism. Various groups have now designed games and puzzles that can be used to promote social interaction in children with autism.

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