Can playing video games improve attention span?
It is common to believe that video games and other digital media are reducing our attention spans. Kids (and adults) report that they have shorter attention spans and readily acknowledge the need for constant stimulation. We have become accustomed to a world in which movement, change, and entertainment are the norm, so when things slow down, we don’t pay as much attention. Many parents describe their children as frequently being bored unless they are engaged with a digital device. This is particularly true for parents whose kids have difficulty with attention and learning issues.
Parents of children with attention and learning issues face a difficult choice when it comes to allowing their children to play video games. Kids with short attention spans often have only a few areas where they are able to focus intently on an activity. Video-game play may represent one of a limited number of activities where they report a sense of accomplishment and sustain their persistence toward achieving a goal. However, when video games become a primary interest for children with attention difficulties, it can be exceedingly difficult to get them to transition from playing video games to participating in other activities.
However, video games exercise many of the cognitive skills that help children pay attention and stay on task, including the immediacy of feedback and the capacity to match challenges to a child’s current expertise. Because video games, apps, and other digital technologies engage the sustained attention and focus of children, they can be powerful tools for learning. In order to make them most helpful, you need to know how to choose the best games, how to limit them appropriately, and how to transfer game-based skills into real-world skills.
The following are real-world approaches that can help you to get the most out of your child's interest in video games:
Play active games.
Research shows that physical activity can affect brain chemistry in a positive way, boosting children’s capacity for focus and working memory through the production of BDNF (brain-derived neurotrophic factors), proteins in the brain that can help to enhance memory and attention. Consider having your children play these games before they do their homework to increase their ability to attend and focus after game play.
Set meaningful limits on the amount of time your kids are involved with digital technologies.
A good rule of thumb for children with learning and attention issues is:
- Preschoolers: limited and supervised time only
- Elementary school students: 1 - 1.5 hours per day, including television time
- Middle school students:5 - 2 hours per day, including television and cell-phone time
- High school students: 2 - 2.5 hours per day, with negotiation based upon the use of technology for academic needs
Provide a diverse selection of apps and digital technologies.
Find engaging apps that support weak academic skills. Children who love playing video games might also like to master apps such as Evernote, Dragon Dictation, or Google Drive, which can help with school and attention issues. These types of apps are particularly useful for children who have problems with organization, planning, or time management.
Play action video games.
Games such as Plants vs. Zombies 2 that involve fast-paced decision-making have been demonstrated to improve selective attention and the capacity to identify relevant and important details.
Educate yourself about how to choose and use popular technologies.
Websites such as LearningWorks for Kids , Teachers With Apps, and Common Sense Media can help you identify the best games and apps to improve executive functions for your child with attention and learning issues.
Randy Kulman, Ph.D. is a child clinical psychologist and President of LearningWorks for Kids, an educational technology company that specializes in using video games and interactive digital media to teach executive-functioning and academic skills. He works with kids and families in Rhode Island at South County Child and Family Consultants. Dr. Kulman is also the author of two books; Train Your Brain for Success: A Teenager’s Guide to Executive Functions and Playing Smarter in a Digital World.