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Categories: 2010, June
by Kevin Roberts
UNLIKE MANY MEMBERS OF MY FAMILY AND OVER HALF OF
UNTREATED ADULTS WITH ADHD, I dodged the bullet of
substance abuse.* Having witnessed the effects of
substance abuse, I succumbed to temptation of a different sort: between
1993 and 2003, I logged over 14,000 hours playing computer games. A
casual amusement became an all-encompassing obsession.
One of my worst binges came after a student gave me the game Age of
Empires. The moment I installed it on my computer, the game became
my life. One weekend, I told everybody that I was out of town and sank
into the game. A persistently ringing phone jolted me out of my trance.
It was Doug, a childhood friend who rented a room next door.
“I’m aware what’s going on over there,” he
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” I
hedged, my right hand continuing to work the mouse.
“Well, you might have fooled me,” Doug said, “except
for one miscalculation: You should have turned down the speakers. The
sound is traveling through your walls into my living room!” The
noise bothered him less than my attempt to lie to him. He refused to let
me isolate myself.
“How long have you been playing?” he asked.
“I don’t know,” I replied—truthfully.
“It’s noon right now,” he went on. “Have you
been to bed yet?”
To my chagrin, I realized I had spent twenty-six hours immersed in the
Such binges—the longest lasting forty-nine
hours—took their toll on my mental and physical health. Excessive
playing and Internet use gave me carpal tunnel syndrome and persistent
back pain. They have been a significant barrier to friendships,
relationships, and jobs. I would chat all night online with
“friends” all over the world to the detriment of going out
with friends in the here and now. I was shocked to realize how much of
my adult life centered on video games and the Internet.
Finally, in 2003, I could no longer ignore the discomfort and
dissatisfaction of my unrealized dreams. Through therapy, weekend
retreats, and support from my family and friends, I started a program of
recovery. Early in my recovery, I saw the link between my addiction and
my ADHD. In Driven to Distraction by Edward Hallowell and John
Ratey (Touchstone, 1995), I discovered my ADHD-driven need for constant
mental stimulation. I gravitated to games because they offered an
uninterrupted flow of challenges and rewards that roused me in ways that
the mundane and repetitive rhythms of life did not.
Such is the case for most of the folks I see professionally. I developed
the curriculum and am a teacher for a program called EmpowerADD to teach
people affected by ADHD, mostly high school and college students, the
skills they need to succeed. Almost ninety percent of our participants
are excessive Internet, computer, or video game users. Their struggles
in school contrast sharply with their achievements in the
Like many in the program, sixteen-year-old Ryan belonged to a clan, a
group of online “friends” who assemble every night to fight,
adventure, and explore. Ryan has trouble getting up in the morning and
arriving on time to school, but is always prompt for online game
meetings. He plans missions and organizes patrols in the cyberworld,
while never developing his ability to problem solve and organize the
details of real life. He has totally mastered many games while failing
classes and neglecting the important people in his life.
Games like Halo, Call of Duty, the Sims, and
World of Warcraft take center stage for kids like Ryan. As
their bodies, responsibilities, and relationships suffer, they continue
to game. Their immense talents and potential stagnate. They prefer their
games to everything and everyone else in their lives. Often, this
singular, cyber-oriented focus is just the tip of the iceberg: many
game-addicted adolescents and adults with ADHD also have anxiety and
social issues that they are not confronting, as well as a variety of
unexamined emotional and self-esteem-related problems. Excessive gaming
only makes these issues worse.
MySpace, Facebook, Twitter and simply surfing the Internet also entrance
many a person with ADHD. Madison, a seventeen-year-old EmpowerADD
participant, had a superior IQ but was failing three classes. On my
recommendation, her mother examined her iPhone use. During the school
day, the young lady sent an average of seventy-five text messages and
over a hundred Facebook messages. Her clandestine in-class iPhone use
let her evade the boredom she felt in school, allowing her to escape her
problems, rather than confront them.
Most individuals with ADHD find sitting through classes incredibly
frustrating. The environment feels counter to most, if not all, of our
perceptual, communicative and learning-style preferences. We become
bored, restless and irritated. The cyberworld’s endless supply of
constantly-changing stimuli offers a welcome respite.
But, like anything rewarding or pleasurable, it can be taken to
extremes. Those of us with ADHD have brains that make us particularly
susceptible to addiction. I regularly deal with teens who have used
marijuana and alcohol, but cyber-related obsessions represent the most
common barrier to success. The problem has grown so much in recent years
that I have started running support groups for cyberaddicts.
As my own history demonstrates, the creativity and
spirit of adventure that many people with ADHD possess can be consumed
by the cyberworld. We find our games, social networking sites, and
Internet surfing so satisfying that these behaviors become embedded in
what scientists call the reward circuitry of our brains. We become
dependent on the jolt they give to our brains. When our access is taken
away, we go through withdrawal, experiencing physical and emotional
discomfort. Many of us become full-fledged addicts.
The good news is that the world needs cyberadept people. Commerce,
communication, and marketing are increasingly transacted online. Parents
whose children are cyber-oriented and have ADHD need to recognize the
value of this interest. Video games, the Internet, and the computer can
be the most powerful rewards for these children. This is particularly
poignant since it can be difficult to find rewards that will motivate
them. I recommend that screen time be linked to a variety of desirable
behaviors including homework completion, household chores, and
respectful conduct. I also suggest that parents buy aerobic video games
like Dance, Dance Revolution, and link screen time with
The benefits of the cyberworld are numerous, but we must be cognizant of
achieving balance. If a child seems drawn to the adventure of the
cyberworld, it is important to help him or her find adventure in the
real world. Twelve-year-old Tyler was hooked on squad level shooting
games like Call of Duty. His father got him interested in
paintball, which became a biweekly father-and-son activity. Tyler did
not stop playing video games, but after a few months of paintball his
father noticed that the boy tired more quickly of video games and it
became easier to get him off a game.
The father of a discovery-oriented eleven-year-old excessive gamer,
Will, started taking his son on adventure bike rides. They joined a
group of “urban explorers” who regularly rode through
rarely-seen parts of the city of Detroit: old industrial sections,
unused railroad networks, and historic districts. Will loved it. His
father bought a GPS which they used to plan rides all through the metro
area. Will’s father found a way to engage the boy’s love of
exploration in real-time. He also got him out of the house for some
much-needed exercise, and probably prevented a full-blown addiction.
IF YOUR CHILD IS ALREADY
ADDICTED, seek the advice of a therapist before you
confront the addiction. The circuits of our brains can become
intertwined in the characters and events of a magical reality. The games
and social networking profiles become extensions of ourselves. We chase
rewards in our games and amass friends in our online networks with the
same intensity that people pursue food when they are hungry. The
cyberworld can completely absorb the motivational circuitry of our
minds. When you attempt to help a cyberaddict, you must realize that you
are battling fundamental forces within the brain.
By and large, people with ADHD love the cyberworld. Given the structure
of our brains, however, we can easily become addicted. I strongly advise
parents, especially those with a child affected by ADHD, to become
cyberexperts so they can effectively channel their child’s
potential and ensure that the cyberworld opens up opportunities instead
of destroying them.
A problem may exist if:
Remember that cyberaddicts are often creative and highly intelligent.
Help them find ways of channeling their gifts in real time.
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