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Child Psychiatrist /Adult Psychiatrist

Customized Video Games Promising for ADHD, Depression, in Kids

Targeted video games could help reduce symptoms of attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and depression in children and adolescents, results of a new review and meta-analysis suggested.

Depression in Kids

Although the video game–based or "gamified" digital mental health interventions (DMHIs) were associated with modest improvements in ADHD symptoms and depression, investigators found no significant benefit in the treatment of anxiety.

"The studies are showing these video games really do work, at least for ADHD and depression but maybe not for anxiety," Barry Bryant, MD, Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, Baltimore, told Medscape Medical News.

"The results may assist clinicians as they make recommendations to patients and parents regarding the efficacy of using these video games to treat mental health conditions."

The findings were presented on May 6, 2024, at the American Psychiatric Association (APA) 2024 Annual Meeting.

A Major Problem

Childhood mental illness is a "big problem," with about 20% of kids facing some mental health challenge such as ADHD, anxiety, or depression, said Bryant. Unfortunately, these youngsters typically have to wait a while to see a provider, he added.

DMHIs may be an option to consider in the meantime to help meet the increasing demand for treatment, said Bryant.

Gamified DMHIs are like other video games, in that players advance in levels on digital platforms and are rewarded for progress. But they're created specifically to target certain mental health conditions.

An ADHD game, for example, might involve users completing activities that require an increasing degree of attention. Games focused on depression might incorporate mindfulness and meditation practices or cognitive behavioral elements.

Experts in child psychiatry are involved in developing such games along with professionals in business and video game technology, said Bryant.

But the question is do these games really work?

Effective for ADHD, Depression

Investigators reviewed nearly 30 randomized controlled trials of gamified DMHIs as a treatment for anxiety, depression, and/or ADHD in people younger than 18 years that were published from January 1, 1990, to April 7, 2023.

The trials tested a wide variety of gamified DMHIs that fit the inclusion criteria: A control condition, a digital game intervention, sufficient data to calculate effect size, and available in English.

A meta-analysis was performed to examine the therapeutic effects of the gamified DMHIs for ADHD, depression, and anxiety. For all studies, the active treatment was compared with the control condition using Hedges's g to measure effect size and 95% CIs.

Bryant noted there was significant heterogeneity of therapeutic effects between the studies and their corresponding gamified interventions.

The study found gamified DMHIs had a modest therapeutic effect for treating ADHD (pooled g = 0.280; P = .005) and depression (pooled g = 0.279; P = .005) in children and adolescents.

But games targeting anxiety didn't seem to have the same positive impact (pooled g = 0.074; P = .197).

The results suggest the games "show potential and promise" for certain mental health conditions and could offer a "bridge" to accessing more traditional therapies, Bryant said.

"Maybe this is something that can help these children until they can get to see a psychiatrist, or it could be part of a comprehensive treatment plan," he said.

The goal is to "make something that kids want to play and engage with" especially if they're reluctant to sit in a therapist's office.

The results provide clinicians with information they can actually use in their practices, said Bryant, adding that his team hopes to get their study published.

Gaining Traction

Commenting for Medscape Medical News, James Sherer, MD, medical director, Addiction Psychiatry, Overlook Medical Center, Atlantic Health System, said the study shows the literature supports video games, and these games "are gaining traction" in the field.

He noted the app for one such game, EndeavorRx, was one of the first to be approved by the US Food and Drug Administration to treat ADHD in young people aged 8-17 years.

EndeavorRx challenges players to chase mystic creatures, race through different worlds, and use "boosts" to problem-solve while building their own universe, according to the company website.

By being incentivized to engage in certain activities, "there's a level of executive functioning that's being exercised and the idea is to do that repetitively," said Sherer.

Users and their parents report improved ADHD symptoms after playing the game. One of the studies included in the review found 73% of children who played EndeavorRx reported improvement in their attention.

The company says there have been no serious adverse events seen in any clinical trial of EndeavorRx.

Sherer noted many child psychiatrists play some sort of video game with their young patients who may be on the autism spectrum or have a learning disability.

"That may be one of the few ways to communicate with and effectively bond with the patient," he said.

Despite their reputation of being violent and associated with "toxic subcultures," video games can do a lot of good and be "restorative" for patients of all ages, Sherer added.

No relevant conflicts of interest were disclosed.

Note: This article originally appeared on Medscape

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