Digital media use raising risk of ADHD symptoms among the young

According to a new study published this week in the JAMA, rise in use of digital media among teenagers may raise their risk of getting symptoms of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).

Image Credit: Dubova / Shutterstock
Image Credit: Dubova / Shutterstock

Lead author psychologist Adam Leventhal, associate professor of preventive medicine at the University of Southern California explained that this is the first study that associates risk of ADHD and modern digital media use among adolescents. He added that while there have been studies that connect digital media use and depression among the teens, this study shows that excess digital media use is not good for the mental health of these youngsters putting them at risk of ADHD.

Excessive television and video gaming have been associated with rise in ADHD symptoms but little has been explored connecting ADHD and use of tablets, smartphones and computers. Jenny Radesky, a pediatrician at the University of Michigan, in an editorial accompanying the main study wrote that these media has evolved very rapidly and this there has been little information about the impact they have on the young users. She explains in her editorial that each of these new platforms take days or weeks to reach millions of users. “Angry Birds reached 50 million users within 35 days. Pokémon Go reached the same number in 19 days.” She said, “…it's nice to finally to have some evidence on longer term impact that [these technologies are] having on children…I think it shows that something is going on, that there is an association, even if small, between these type[s] of media use habits throughout the day with emerging inattention, trouble with focusing, resisting distraction, controlling your impulses.”

For this new study the researchers looked at 2,587 10th graders belonging to schools in Los Angeles county over a period of two years. At the start of the study the teenagers did not show any symptom of ADHD. By the end of the study, the teenagers who used digital media showed more symptoms of ADHD compared to those with less use.

To test for ADHD use the researchers used a standard ADHD questionnaire where nine symptoms of ADHD were assessed including hyperactivity and inattention. The teenagers who showed six or more symptoms in either of the two categories were taken as those with ADHD symptoms according to the criteria in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorder (DSM).

Over the two years the researchers studied the youngsters every six months and noted the frequency of their participation in 14 different kinds of online activities. These online activities included texting, sharing on social media as well as streaming music and videos. The participants were asked to rate how often they participated in these online activities as 0, 1 to 2 times a week, 1 to 2 times a day and many times a day. Those who used any of the activities many times a day were counted as high frequency users.

They noted that nearly half of the participants were checking on social media and texting many times in a day. They found that students who were frequent users of six or more of the 14 online activities had a higher chance of developing symptoms of ADHD. In their participant population, 51 students frequently indulged in all of the 14 online activities. Among these 51, 10.5 percent showed ADHD symptoms. Among the 114 students who frequently used 7 of the 14 activities, 9.5 percent showed symptoms of ADHD. On the other hand of the 495 teenagers who did not use any of the online activities frequently, only 4.6 percent showed ADHD symptoms. Leventhal says that this shows that the risk of getting ADHD symptoms is twice as much in frequent digital media users among teenagers.

Leventhal explained that for this analysis the researchers accounted for other factors such as family income, race and ethnicity, other mental health conditions etc. which could have influenced the results. He warned that this study is an association study and does not definitely mean that being active online causes ADHD in teenagers. He explained that showing symptoms of ADHD is not the same as being diagnosed with ADHD. None of the teenagers in this study were diagnosed by the study authors to have ADHD, he said.

Radesky in her editorial says that the plus point of this study is the large number of participants from different backgrounds. This gives a fairly clear picture she said. Some other factors that needed to be taken into account according to her are the sleep information of the participants as well as the family dynamics and parental involvement. Disturbed sleep may raise risk of ADHD symptoms she said. Also parents who spend more time on their phone tend to raise kids who do the same she said.

Dr. Ananya Mandal

Written by

Dr. Ananya Mandal

Dr. Ananya Mandal is a doctor by profession, lecturer by vocation and a medical writer by passion. She specialized in Clinical Pharmacology after her bachelor's (MBBS). For her, health communication is not just writing complicated reviews for professionals but making medical knowledge understandable and available to the general public as well.

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