Video games are part of our world. Research shows links between ADHD and video games, but one doesn’t cause the other. And the links aren’t all bad.

Share on Pinterest
Carol Yepes/Getty Images

An estimated 91% of children ages 2-17 play video games, according to Frontiers in Pediatrics. It’s no secret video games have become as mainstream as watching TV.

Adultsages 18-36 spend more time playing video games than watching broadcast television. A 2021 study shows that kids with ADHD spend more time playing video games than other children their age.

The heavy use and persistent symptoms of ADHD make many wonder: Do each worsen the other?

The 2021 study additionally found that the severity of video game compulsion paralleled the severity of ADHD symptoms:

  • impulsivity
  • inattention
  • hyperactivity

The more intense the symptoms, the greater the likelihood of compulsive behaviors.

The authors clarified that ADHD doesn’t appear to cause video game addiction, but ADHD should be seen as a contributing factor to gaming disorder.

“Individuals with ADHD are more prone to play video games more often, but this play does not cause ADHD,” says Drew Lightfoot, the clinical director at Thriveworks in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and professor of healthcare research at La Salle University.

It’s not all bad news for those with ADHD (and their parents or caretakers). A 2015 study highlighted video games as a potential diagnostic and treatment tool.

Older research from 2002 found that playing video games can improve:

  • spatial visualization ability
  • social skills, language skills
  • math skills
  • reading

There’s growing research into the potential benefits of playing video games and their potential as treatment tools.

In short, no. Lightfoot explains, “ADHD is a neurological condition … which is caused by genetics.” Though researchers have yet to identify the exact mechanism(s) that causes ADHD, most experts believe it to be genetic.

If you have a parent or sibling with ADHD, you’re significantly more likely to be diagnosed with ADHD. There are some isolated cases of severe head injuries resulting in an ADHD diagnosis, but these are rare.

There are strong ties between ADHD and video games. People with ADHD tend to spend more time playing games. Those with more intense symptoms tend to play more often.

One2021 study found that “ADHD symptoms and video game addiction appear to have a bidirectional relationship in which the ADHD symptoms make video gaming appealing, while play itself exacerbates the ADHD symptoms by providing … instant gratification.”

A 2018 study found that people with ADHD have greater chances of video game addiction, and those with the most intense symptoms are at the greatest likelihood.

Many parents worry about how much screen time their children have, whether or not they have ADHD. If children with ADHD are at a higher likelihood of video game addiction, these worries may grow, but there’s no cause for panic.

As Lightfoot says, “video games are generally a healthy outlet for the majority of children,” and while “the World Health Organization (WHO) has recently added gaming disorder to their list of diagnoses,” most children’s chances aren’t significant.

To qualify for a diagnosis, the behavior pattern must heavily impact:

  • personal functioning
  • family interaction
  • social interaction
  • educational success
  • occupational success
  • other important areas of functioning

Lightfoot says symptoms must have been present for at least 12 months.

A growing body of research finds the positive effects of playing video games, including a recent study showing that playing video games can boost kids’ intelligence.

Lightfoot says, “Moderate, consistent, and intentional use of video games has been shown to decrease symptoms of stress, depression, anxiety, and loneliness while also increasing symptoms of self-esteem, self-confidence, and personal autonomy.”

The older study mentioned above found the potential benefits of video games included:

  • improved spatial intelligence
  • better ability to set goals
  • increased creativity
  • better self-image
  • improved language skills
  • improved math skills
  • improved reading ability
  • greater social skills

Another older 2009 study found that children who play video games were able to switch tasks more quickly than children who didn’t. Such toggling could be especially helpful for children with ADHD who have difficulty with transitions and task switching.

A research team led by Dr. Isabela Granic, of Radboud University Nijmegen, The Netherlands, in a review of existing research on the effects of video games, found that playing video games can:

  • keep children healthier
  • improve learning
  • help them build social skills

The researchers found that playing video games may help children in all sorts of ways, such as:

  • strengthening memory, spatial navigation, reasoning, and perception
  • developing problem-solving skills
  • increasing creativity
  • improving mood and promoting relaxation
  • preventing anxiety
  • learning resilience and coping better with failure
  • developing leadership, organizational, and cooperation skills
  • improving communication and decision-making skills

Lightfoot says, “While this is an extremely new modality of treatment which requires further study, the short answer is: Possibly so!”

He goes on to share two examples, “First is EndeavorRx, the first FDA approved video game treatment for ADHD,” and “the second is Mightier, a video game system which, when used in conjunction with therapy, has [been] shown to improve children’s ability to recognize and regulate emotions.”

In his paper in Education and Health, Dr. Mark Griffithshighlights some of the ways video games can be useful, including:

  • as research or measurement tools
  • to attract participants from diverse demographics
  • to test a wide variety of tasks and metrics
  • fun and easy for participants to learn and familiar to most
  • experiencing novelty, curiosity, and challenge
  • an innovative and widely adaptable learning tool
  • Angry Birds
  • Bad Piggies
  • Roblox
  • Minecraft
  • Just about any game from the Zelda franchise
  • Guitar Hero
  • Fortnite
  • Animal Crossing
  • Just about any Mario game
  • Pikmin
  • Pokemon
  • Tetris (or similar puzzle games)

Some of the best games for kids are also much loved by adults, but here are several games best played with adult supervision or saved for teens and adults:

  • Age of Empires
  • Sims
  • Rise of Nations
  • Hollow Knight
  • Cuphead
  • Islanders
  • Civilization
  • Katamari Damacy
  • Limbo
  • The Last of Us
  • Mass Effect
  • Red Dead Redemption
  • World of Warcraft
  • Skyrim
  • The Witcher
  • Portal

In addition to the other benefits discussed, playing video games together can be a great way to bond and build personal connections. There’s a multitude of great multiplayer or co-op games you can play with someone with ADHD including:

  • Minecraft
  • StarCraft [T]
  • World of Warcraft [T]
  • Guitar Hero
  • Fortnite
  • It Takes Two
  • Call of Duty [T]
  • Super Smash Bros
  • Rocket League
  • Overwatch
  • Gears of War [T]
  • Wii Sports
  • Mario Kart

*Games more appropriate for teens are denoted with a [T]

There’s a definite connection between ADHD and video games, but it’s not a cause-effect. Folks with ADHD may be at increased risk for developing disordered gaming behavior. The more intense someone’s symptoms are, the greater the likelihood.

Studies have identified a multitude of benefits to playing video games. Playing video games can boost:

  • kids’ learning
  • social skills
  • problem-solving

Video games can also serve as research and measurement tools.

Though it’s a relatively new practice, there’s growing evidence that video games can be useful tools in managing ADHD. One game, EndeavorRX, has even been approved by the FDA as the only prescription video game.

Video games are as much a part of mainstream culture as other forms of entertainment. Children with ADHD are at increased risk of developing unhealthy gaming behaviors, but most children keep their time playing video games within healthy bounds.