Are Teens Giving Themselves ADHD?

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A new study from California has found that teens with high levels of media use are more likely to show ADHD symptoms.

The way teens spend their time has changed drastically over the past ten years. Now most own a smartphone and spend considerable time on it, sharing photos on social media, communicating with friends via text, and watching videos on YouTube every day. While the technology has advanced rapidly, research into its effects on teenage psychological development has not. Much remains unknown about what all this time spent doing these activities actually does to the brain.

A new study explores this. Led by researchers from California and recently published in JAMA, it is the first study to look at the association between modern digital media and risk of developing attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). The two-year study followed 2,587 tenth-graders in Los Angeles County, none of whom had any ADHD symptoms at the beginning of the study. The researchers followed up with participants every six months, at which point each reported on how often he or she texted, used social media, and streamed videos or music.

The results were alarming. From NPR's writeup on the study:

"Students who frequently used six or more activities had a higher likelihood of developing ADHD symptoms. For instance, among the 51 students who frequently did all 14 online activities, 10.5 percent showed ADHD symptoms over the course of the study. And of the 114 teens who frequently did seven digital activities, 9.5 showed symptoms. In contrast, only 4.6 percent of the 495 kids who didn't do any of the activities frequently had new ADHD symptoms over the two-year period."

To be clear, the study does not prove causation, but merely an association -- and exhibiting ADHD symptoms is different from being diagnosed with ADHD. But the findings are still concerning, as one study author, Adam Leventhal, explained:

"To have 10-ish percent [of the high frequency media users] have the occurrence of new symptoms is fairly high."

Something else that may have been a factor is the number of hours spent sleeping, which was not tracked in the study. As NPR reports, media use is linked to disturbed sleep, which in turn affects a teen's ability to focus and could ontribute to the development of ADHD-like symptoms during the day. Other influences could be the amount of time parents spend on their phones, and the level of parental influence over time teens spend on their own devices.

While the research into the effects of our media-obsessed culture will continue to accumulate over the years, I still think the most powerful argument comes from an interview I heard on CBC last fall, when someone said our biggest concern should be everything that children and teens are missing. It's the things they're NOT doing because they're living in a digital world that should raise the biggest red flags for parents. For that reason alone, we should all set boundaries for ourselves, minimize use, and return to living in the real world.