JUL 19, 2018 06:18 AM PDT

Digital Media and ADHD: Is There a Connection?

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The amount of time children spend on digital screens (smartphones, tablets, photo sharing apps, social media) has been a matter of debate and controversy since the devices became so common.

There are dozens of studies that tout the benefits of tablets and other digital equipment for children with speech and language delays, special needs or learning differences. There is an equal number of studies that warn of the danger of spending so much time glued to a screen. Sleep disturbances, social problems, and hearing and vision issues have been linked to screen use. So which is it? Well, no one really quite knows for sure, but a piece of recent research from scientists at USC suggests that there is a correlation between the amount of time spent on digital media and ADHD behaviors.

The study involved 2600 teenagers whose development and screen use were tracked by researchers for two years. The study showed that those who were heavy users of tablets, phones, and other devices were twice as likely to show symptoms of ADHD than those who only used the devices infrequently. The study's goal was to investigate the mental health outcomes and other developmental issues in an age group that has grown up knowing nothing but technology, the Internet, and portable devices. The study looked specifically at social media, streaming video, text messaging, chatroom, music downloads, and photo sharing apps. It did not include television viewing or video games.

Adam Leventhal is a professor of preventive medicine and psychology and director of the USC Health, Emotion and Addiction Laboratory at the Keck School of Medicine of USC. He is a c-author of the work and explained, "What's new is that previous studies on this topic were done many years ago, when social media, mobile phones, tablets and mobile apps didn't exist. New, mobile technologies can provide fast, high-intensity stimulation accessible all day, which has increased digital media exposure far beyond what's been studied before."

It's a significant finding given how common the devices have become and how much rates of ADHD diagnoses have increased. Several studies on how much time kids spend on digital media devices have been done. The CDC numbers state that 43% of high school students used digital media for three or more hours per day. A survey by Common Sense Media in 2015 put the number at nine hours per day for children aged 13-18 and six hours a day for those 12 and under, and those numbers do not include homework or school work.

The study was comprised of students aged 15 or 16 at the beginning of the study period, from 10 public high schools in Los Angeles County. The demographics included mixed racial groups and socioeconomic levels. There were no students included who had a pre-existing diagnosis of ADHD. Their social media use of 14 different platforms was monitored every six months for two years and sorted into three categories: no use, medium use, and heavy use. When the numbers were tallied up, 9.5% of children who used 7 of the platforms frequently and 10.5% of those who used all of the platforms frequently showed new symptoms of ADHD. In the group of teens who were not frequent users of any of the platforms, the rate of new symptoms of ADHD was 4.6%, which is almost the same rate as the general population for the onset of ADHD.

The authors stressed that the study does not prove that the use of digital media devices causes ADHD. Leventhal stated, "This study raises concern whether the proliferation of high-performance digital media technologies may be putting a new generation of youth at risk for ADHD." Many of the teens could have had a propensity for ADHD that had not yet manifested yet. It's a "chicken and egg" debate because it's possible that children who have ADHD but perhaps have not been diagnosed, tend to gravitate to screens, apps, and social media. For more information, check out the video below.

Sources: USC JAMA Psychiatry USA Today Common Sense Media  CDC The Verge

About the Author
  • I'm a writer living in the Boston area. My interests include cancer research, cardiology and neuroscience. I want to be part of using the Internet and social media to educate professionals and patients in a collaborative environment.
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