Alarming study shows link between digital media use and ADHD

To any casual observer, high schoolers addicted to their smart devices is an obvious fact of life. A new study makes it clear that this can have adverse effects on attention span. 

Frequent digital media use can be associated with a higher likelihood of attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) symptoms, according to a new study published by The Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) this week.

ADHD symptoms include quickly losing focus after starting tasks, the need to move constantly, and problems sustaining attention during conversations, lectures, or extended reading, according to the National Institute of Mental Health

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The JAMA study found that frequent checking of social media, browsing, commenting on posts and other digital-media activities that hook high schoolers will increase the likelihood of “meeting ADHD criteria” two years later, according to comments posted by Jenny Radesky, MD, an assistant professor in Developmental Behavioral Pediatrics at the University of Michigan Medical School. Radesky, who is also Associate Editor at NEJM Journal Watch, wrote an editorial accompanying the study.

The objective of the study was to determine whether the frequency of using digital media among 15 and 16-year-olds "without significant ADHD symptoms" is later associated with ADHD symptoms.

Of teens who used digital media with "high frequency," more met ADHD criteria later compared to those no high-frequency media use, JAMA said.

Researchers surveyed over 2,500 students 15-16 years old from 10 Los Angeles high schools between 2014 and 2016. Students who reported often experiencing 6 or more inattentive or hyperactive-impulsive symptoms were found to be ADHD symptom-positive, according to JAMA.

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Sleep, exercise can suffer

Media use shouldn't crowd out activities to “build focus and self-regulation” such as sleep, exercise, reading, and uninterrupted homework and family time Radesky wrote, citing American Academy of Pediatrics recommendations.

When meeting with parents and teens, clinicians should discuss “the idea that technology is now designed to be habit forming" and the fact that media on mobile devices can interrupt "brain downtime." 

The JAMA study also noted that while games such as Angry Birds and Pokémon Go were used by an estimated 50 million global users within weeks, most research studies take years. 

“As a result, crafting evidence-based recommendations that address all of the technologies children and adolescents currently use has been challenging,” JAMA said.