ADHD News & Research

New Video Games May Teach Children Emotional Control

A series of innovative new video games claims to help children with ADHD or anxiety regulate difficult emotions — by requiring them to calm down independently in order to advance to the next levels.

July 21, 2017

Researchers from Boston Children’s Hospital have recently released a series of video games designed to help children with ADHD, anxiety, or emotional delays manage difficult feelings and learn how to calm down independently.

The games, produced by a company called Mighteor, use a form of biofeedback to track each player’s heart rate. Difficulty escalates alongside heart rate. In order to remove extra obstacles and play the game with the least amount of difficulty, a player must mindfully calm down and, thus, lower her heart rate, the researchers said. The goal is to “build muscle memory” for self-regulating emotions, said Jason Kahn, one of the co-founders of Mighteor and a former developmental psychologist at Boston Children’s. “What we’re trying to do is build emotional strength for kids,” he added.

The games’ effectiveness has been tested in two studies, one published in 2012 and one conducted in 2015 that has not yet been published. The first focused on children with significant anger issues, who showed improvement in emotional control after just five days of playing the game. The second compared the biofeedback version of the game to an identical version that didn’t measure heart rate, and found that children who played the version with biofeedback showed significantly lower levels of aggression and opposition after the study concluded, the authors said.

Kids who struggle with emotions are often enthralled with video games, making them a key target for this specific type of therapy. “A lot of these kids we are seeing are not interested in psychotherapy and talking,” said Joseph Gonzalez-Heydrich, head of the scientific advisory board of Mighteor. “But they will work really hard to get good at a video game.”

Still, some mental health experts are skeptical of the games’ effectiveness. Russell Barkley, Ph.D., said in an interview with the Wall Street Journal that, since none of the studies specifically focused on children with ADHD or anxiety, further research on these populations was likely warranted.

Carson, a 10-year-old with anxiety, deems the games “three-quarters as fun” as regular video games, but says they’ve helped him better control his emotions in situations that used to make him anxious.

“I think it’s a fun way for kids to control their heart rate when their feelings are high and energetic,” he said.

Mighteor currently has seven games, all of which became available for purchase in June. They cost $249 for a three-month subscription that includes a tablet and biofeedback wristband. After that, the subscription price drops to $19 a month. Mighteor recommends that children play the games for 45 minutes a week.