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It's a common observation among parents of children who have ADHD. Attention deficit disorders don't interfere with TV or video games.

But My Kid Can't Have ADHD, He Plays Video Games for Hours!

Many parents hesitate to have the children evaluated for attention deficit hyperactivity disorder precisely because they can focus their attention on TV, wii, or the computer. But the ability to focus attention on a flat screen actually is a symptom of ADHD. Moreover, if children don't exhibit signs of ADHD in childhood, watching three or more hours of non-educational TV a day is likely to cause them to exhibit signs of ADHD by age 14.

American Scientists Study the Relationship Between TV and ADHD

ADHD is understood in different ways in different cultures, so American scientists set out to determine whether American children watching American TV shows were likely to develop ADHD, or ADHD caused American children to fixate on American TV.

Scientists conducting the Children in Community Study in upstate New York followed the development of children in 678 families. They tracked hours of television watched and social development from childhood to age 33. The study found that:

  • Children who watched more than 1 hour of television a day at age 14 had problems focusing on schoolwork.
  • Children who watched 3 or more hours of television a day at age 14 were at high risk of dropping out of high school, and many did not complete a GED (general equivalency diploma) even by age 33.
  • Educational TV tracked well with educational achievement for children, but not with teens. The habit of watching Sesame Street and similar programs in childhood tended to set up children for watching non-educational TV as adolescents.

Why TV May Bring on ADHD

The reason television seems to cause ADHD is that it trains children to observe a highly controlled world.

  • The child can record, pause, skip, and rewind a TV program. The child cannot record, pause, skin, and rewind life experiences.
  • There is a predictable "reward" by the conclusion of a television program or the end of a game. There is no predictability of rewards in real life.
  • TV shows come to a conclusion no matter what the viewer does. Real life requires participation.

Video games may be harmful to children because they train the brain for a fast pace that simply is not found in day to day experience. A brain that is charged by fast experiences becomes depressed when events move at a slow pace. There is considerable agreement among experts that  keeps children from developing the mental flexibility they need to focus attention on a single activity, task, or goal.

Lack of Sleep Makes Symptoms Even Worse

Another source of ADHD symptoms is lack of sleep. Elementary school children who get less than 10 hours of sleep a night tend to exhibit emotional lability, ups and downs of emotions that interfere with concentration and enjoyment on a single task. Staying up late to watch TV is especially injurious to a child's mental health.

  • Johnson JG, Cohen P, Kasen S, Brook JS. Extensive television viewing and the development of attention and learning difficulties during adolescence. Arch Pediatr Adolesc Med. 2007 May,161(5):480-6.
  • Nixon GM, Thompson JM, Han DY, Becroft DM, Clark PM, Robinson E, Waldie KE, Wild CJ, Black PN, Mitchell EA. Short sleep duration in middle childhood: risk factors and consequences. Sleep. 2008 Jan 1, 31(1):71-8.
  • Photo courtesy of 40224305@N07 on Flickr: www.flickr.com/photos/40224305@N07/4835575340/sizes/m/in/photostream/