What can I do for my 15-year-old son, who has Asperger’s and ADHD and seems addicted to video games?

by Boston Children's Hospital staff on May 4, 2012

Michael Rich, MD, MPH

Michael Rich, MD, MPH, is Children’s Hospital Boston’s media expert and director of Children’s Center on Media and Child Health. Take a look at his blog archive or follow him on Twitter @CMCH_Boston

Q: My son is 15 and displays symptoms of video game addiction, including lying and sneaking to try to gain access. He has Asperger’s and ADHD, and regardless of what medication regimen we try, the gaming obsession remains. I recently asked the psychiatrist to hospitalize him and treat him as they would other addicts, but they just changed his meds. Anyway, even if he were treated, he needs the computer for school. Do you have any advice for me?
-Dealing with Addiction, Orlando, FL

A: Dear Dealing with Addiction,

Unfortunately, more and more families share your story. Whether through sleep deprivation, anxiety, or social isolation, teens struggling with problematic video game or internet use are suffering, and their families are disrupted. And research shows that young people with ADHD may actually be more susceptible to problematic video game or internet use.

Part of why it’s so hard to find good treatment is that these symptoms have yet to be recognized as a formal psychiatric diagnosis in the U.S. (unlike in South Korea and China, where clinics, hospitals, and “detox” centers treat Internet Addiction Disorder). Still, there are steps you can take to help your son:

  1. Keep working with mental health professionals. Make sure that his providers recognize and respect these particular problems.
  2. Optimize his treatment. Just as youth with ADHD learn more effectively in the controlled computer environment than in the chaos of a classroom, they are also at higher risk for problematic internet behaviors. Similarly, the social awkwardness of Asperger’s syndrome feels more manageable online. That may be why there’s some evidence that problematic behaviors may decrease or disappear underlying issues are addressed in therapy and any medication is optimized.
  3. Move his computer and internet access into common space. Your presence will help you help him regulate his computer behaviors. Be aware that smartphones and many portable digital players are wireless internet-capable, so treat them similarly.
  4. Find diverse activities that fill his needs. Look for pursuits that have clear rules, and achievable goals, and that allow him to move at his own pace. Rock climbing or a martial art like tae kwan do or karate would build his mindfulness and self-discipline, while also providing exercise and positive social interaction.
  5. Get him outside. Being immersed in nature has a calming and focusing effect. It can also be an effective context for treatment—wilderness therapy has worked wonders for some of my patients and could be a good option for your son.

Remember, too, that when used in moderation, computers and video games can help young people with ADHD and Asperger’s learn, grow, and thrive in ways that they cannot in more traditional educational and social contexts. For more information and resources, take a look at this website.

Enjoy your media and use them wisely,
The Mediatrician®

2 comments

  • Karen_Fletcher1959

    This is a great post. I recently had a similar struggle with my son. We approached the issue for a couple years with individual therapy (outpatient) and boundaries like the ones you’ve described. Although we saw periodic improvement with regard to gaming, we eventually had to enroll him in a residential treatment center that addressed both his video game addiction, as well as his ADHD. If you are struggling with a child who needs intensive treatment for gaming addiction or psychological issues, check out http://www.dualdiagnosisdrugrehab.com. Finding treatment centers that address video gaming addiction is really problematic and we had a great experience with this center. Keep your chin up and stay the course. With the proper support, ADHD and addictive life styles are 100% treatable!

  • Andrea Leone Thompson

    I have dated someone who has asperger’s and was addicted to video games.  He found work as a programmer in the field that he loved and is a very happy adult so I would say allow him to do what he loves.

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