Most experts have long agreed that “train the brain” games do not improve attention. But in April, a small study from the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF) got press coverage because of its claim that one iPad-based video game does.
The study looked at 62 kids, some of whom had with and without ADHD symptoms. Researchers claimed that after playing the game, called Project: EVO, for four weeks, some of the kids had fewer attention issues.
Some news articles repeated that claim. For example, one headline read “This Video Game Helped Some Kids Overcome Attention Problems.”
Understood experts Ellen Braaten and Thomas E. Brown reviewed the study. Here’s the takeaway.
The study was published in PLOS One. This peer-reviewed journal is unusual in charging fees to publish a study. The study was partially funded by online donations, something that’s also not typical in academic research.
The researchers referred to their work as a “pilot study.” (This is a small study prepared in advance of a large one.) They wrote that they wanted to explore the possibility of using a “train the brain” game to help improve kids’ attention.
They compared three groups of kids:
- 20 with sensory processing issues and ADHD symptoms
- 17 with sensory processing issues, but no ADHD symptoms
- 25 typically developing kids
First, the researchers had the parents of all the kids complete ADHD rating scales. Then they had the kids play the video game for 30 minutes a day, five days a week, for four weeks.
Because this was a pilot, the researchers didn’t include a control group. That would have been a group of kids (with the same attributes as the test group) who played a different game—one that wasn’t intended to help with attention issues.
After the four weeks, the researchers had the parents complete the ADHD rating scales again. Parents of the children with sensory processing issues and ADHD symptoms reported a change. They said their kids had far fewer attention issues after playing the game.
The researchers followed up with these parents many months later. The parents reported that their kids still had these improvements in attention.
Key Takeaways for Parents
“Parents should be very skeptical about this study,” says Braaten. “There are several warning signs here.”
Braaten notes that the study was published in a lesser-known journal, with a very small sample size, and no control group. “It’s also not clear if the kids were also getting other treatments for attention issues, and the data is self-reported by parents,” she adds.
Another problem, according to Braaten, is that the study was published as a pilot. But some in the media have reported on it as if it were conclusive research. “The researchers here weren’t actually trying to prove anything, except that this is a question to ask.”
Studies on these types of games have consistently found that playing them doesn’t improve kids’ memory, attention or cognitive ability. Braaten points out that this study contradicts that evidence.
“Without professional training, it can be hard for parents to know if a study is meaningful or not,” Braaten says. “The problem is when the news media doesn’t know how to critically evaluate the source of a study.”
“If you’re a parent and you see a study that’s interesting,” she says, “it’s best to make sure you get an expert’s opinion on what that study may mean for your child.”
Read more about how to tell if research is valid. See a chart that shows the difference between ADHD and sensory processing issues. And learn about proven treatments for ADHD, along with alternative treatments for ADHD.
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The Understood Team is made up of passionate writers and editors. Many of them have kids who learn and think differently.