Video games and attention skills:

An evidence-based guide for parents

© 2010 - 2013 Gwen Dewar, all rights reserved

What is the causal relationship between video games and attention? Do video games cause attention problems? Or do they actually help children focus?

It seems that both are true.

Studies suggest that action games can enhance certain visual attention skills. They may even help dyslexic children read (Franceschini et al 2013).

But when it comes to paying attention in the classroom, "high volume" gamers seem to have more trouble.

Here are the details.

Playing action video games may enhance visual attention skills

Kids seem to have no problem paying attention when they play video games. In fact, there is rather convincing evidence that playing action games actually increases certain visual attention skills.

In a study of American kids, researchers compared the visual attention skills of avid gamers with those of non-gamers (Dye et al 2009).

The kids, aged 7-18 years, were tested on three specific visual attention skills

  • the ability to scan efficiently for a target
  • the time required to “snap” attention back after finding a target, and
  • the number of objects that a child can pay attention to at once

One of the tasks looked like this: A line-up of fish, with one fish at the center and two “flankers” on each side.

Kids were asked to judge whether or not the flanker fish were pointing in the same direction as the central, target fish. Their responses were timed.

The results were consistent with other studies of video games and attention skills.

In all three areas tested, the kids who played action video games performed better than the kids lacking video game experience.

Action video games may improve reading ability in dyslexic children

If you think about the "fish challenge," it's not unlike the task of reading alphabetic writing.

Might visual-spatial gaming help children learn to keep track of words on the printed page?

A recent study supports the idea. Sandro Franceschini and his colleagues (2013) randomly assigned kids with dyslexia to play either action or non-action video games. Kids in each group completed nine, 80-minute sessions of game playing, and their reading abilities were tested before and after training.

The results were quite dramatic. The kids who had played action games improved their reading speed--without any loss in accuracy--and their gains exceeded the amount of spontaneous, developmental improvement that kids ordinarily make over the course of a year. The children also scored better on tests of visual attention.

What exactly is going on? Vanessa Harrar and her colleagues (2014) have found that dyslexics have particularly hard time switching attention from visual to auditory stimuli, which makes the standard approach to reading -- seeing a letter and then imagining the sound it makes -- very difficult. They think that action video games may help people practice switching back and forth.

So it seems that action video games can hone visual attention skills and help kids with dyslexia improve reading ability. But that doesn't mean that action games are beneficial for all sorts of attention.

What, for example, about paying attention to "talking heads?" Listening to a teacher before he says something unexpected or exciting.

This proactive sort of attention seems crucial for studying and following directions at school. And it’s what many avid gamers seem to have trouble with.

Playing video games might cause attention problems at school

Recently, Edward Swing and his colleagues tracked over 1300 American kids for over 13 months (Swing et al 2010).

The kids, in grades 3-5, were asked to keep track of how much time they spent playing video games.

These tallies were cross-checked against their parents’ reports.

Researchers also asked teachers to evaluate each child’s attention skills at 4 different points over the 13-month study.

The results revealed a weak, but statistically significant, link between video games and teacher-reported attention problems.

And the pattern was consistent with the idea that playing video games causes attention problems:

Kids who played more at the beginning of the study experienced increased attention problems at the end. This was true even after controlling for prior student attention problems. Teachers said the kids got worse over time.

What about heavy use?

Video games, attention problems, and the brain

Another study, led by Kay Bailey, measured the brain activity of 51 male undergraduates as they tried to pay attention.

The young college men were presented with the Stroop task, a standard psychology test that asks a person to identify the color of a word that is flashed on a screen.

What makes the Stroop task particularly difficult is that the meaning of the word conflicts with the color. For example, the word “red” might be written in green letters.

The researchers compared the performance of two groups:

• “Low volume” gamers (who played video games less than 2 hours per week)

• “High volume” gamers (who played video games more than 40 hours per week)

As the undergraduates worked, researchers timed their responses and recorded their brain ERPs, or event-related potentials. When it came to reacting after a word flashed on the screen, both groups performed similarly.

But there was a fascinating difference in brain activity just before the words were flashed on the screen.

The “low volume” gamers showed evidence of paying more attention during these “wait and see” moments.

By contrast, the “high volume” gamers seemed to have trouble sustaining their attention.

Their brain activity resembled someone who has less “proactive control,” i.e., more trouble keeping his mind focused on what is about to happen.

Bailey and colleagues note that their study doesn’t demonstrate causation. It’s possible that people with less proactive control are more attracted by video games.

But given the implications of the Swing study--which found that kids’ attention skills worsened over time if they played more video games--the new research is worrying.

Why might video games make kids less attentive?

Television seems to have a similar effect (Swing et al 2010), which suggests that fast edits and flashy graphics play a role.

According to Edward Swing, “It is still not clear why screen media may increase attention problems, but many researchers speculate that it may be due to rapid-pacing, or the natural attention grabbing aspects that television and video games use.”

Swing’s coauthor, media expert David Gentile agrees.

"Brain science demonstrates that the brain becomes what the brain does," Gentile said in recent press release.

"If we train the brain to require constant stimulation and constant flickering lights, changes in sound and camera angle, or immediate feedback, such as video games can provide, then when the child lands in the classroom where the teacher doesn't have a million-dollar-per-episode budget, it may be hard to get children to sustain their attention."

More reading

For more analysis of the research on this topic, see my Parenting Science guide to the effects of video games.

Copyright © 2006-2021 by Gwen Dewar, Ph.D.; all rights reserved.
For educational purposes only. If you suspect you have a medical problem, please see a physician.

References: Video games and attention

Bailey K, West R, and Anderson CA. 2010. A negative association between video game experience and proactive cognitive control. Psychophysiology. 47(1):34-42.

Dye MWG, Green CS, and Bavelier D. 2009. The development of attention skills in action video game players. Neuropsychologia, 47, 1780-1789.

Franceschini S, Gori S, Ruffino M, Viola S, Molteni M, and Facoetti A. 2013. Action Video Games Make Dyslexic Children Read Better. Current Biology.

Harrar V, Tammam J, Pérez-Bellido A, Pitt A, Stein J, Spence C. Multisensory Integration and Attention in Developmental Dyslexia. Curr Biol. 2014 Feb 11. pii: S0960-9822(14)00062-1.

Swing EL, Gentile DA, Anderson CA, and Walsh DA. 2010. Television and video game exposure and the development of attention problems. Pediatrics. 126(2):214-21.

Content of "Video games and attention" last modified 2/13