Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Video Game Addiction and Individuals with Special Needs

Do individuals with special needs, like ASDs and ADHD, get caught up in video game addiction more readily? OK, so maybe “Internet Gaming Addiction” is not an official disorder in the US. But, we know the behavior exists, whether or not it’s a separate disorder, or co-mingled with some other condition. What is the science on video game addiction and ASDs?

In my therapy practice I focus on individuals with special needs like ASDs and ADHD. It’s pretty common for me to meet a child or teenager who has a habit of playing games for as much time as the parents will allow, whether that’s one hour a day or seven hours a day. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends no more than 1 to 2 hours daily of screen time for any kids 2 and older, and none at all for younger children. And this recommendation is for typically developing kids, not those special needs kids who are already at a higher risk of having difficulties. Adverse risks the AAP cite include: “attention problems, school difficulties, sleep and eating disorders, and obesity.” So many of the kids I work with are already struggling with these problems - attention issues with the EF difficulties they may have,  sleep and eating problems that go hand in hand with an ASD diagnosis, weight issues due to the medications these kids may need. It’s concerning! 

Dr. Micah Mazurek has done a great deal of research on the issue of screen use and ASDs or other special needs. (I’ve accessed many of her studies through my professional organization, but Google Scholar also provides access to a lot of her information so parents can read the studies, or at least the abstracts.) Her results add to my concern. 

In a 2012 study, Mazurek and Wenstrup compared television, video game and social media usage in kids with ASDs and their typically developing siblings. I wasn’t surprised by the results. The kids with ASDs spent more time playing video games than their typical siblings, and they spent more time playing games and watching TV than doing any other extracurricular activity. And the ASD kids spent little time on social media and socially interactive games. Finally, the ASD kids had more problematic behaviors around games, like difficulty stopping and using the games to manage their moods. Although I often hear the argument that games are a way to be social, the ASD kids were much less likely to play these games with others, either in person or online. 

Other Mazurek studies have found similar results, including the disturbing fact that kids with ASDs spend more time on video games than any other leisure activity. Kids with ASDs have more sleep problems and more oppositional behavior when their parents allow in room access to screen, and if there are no rules regarding usage. Another study from Mazurek found that boys with ADHD or ASD had a greater tendency to have problematic game use than typical boys. 

From other researchers, Chan and Robinowitz found a correlation between more than 1 hour a day of game play and more intense ADHD or inattentive symptoms. 

So what does this mean for parents of special needs kids? What if your child can only entertain himself with screens? What if it’s the only way he can calm down? What if games are the only thing he has in common with peers? What if you need a break and the screen is the only thing that gives you some time to relax? I’m sorry, this post is too long already. I’ll address those issues in my next post!

Thanks to Pixabay for the photo!

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