A new study, published in JAMA, investigates the effects of digital media use on ADHD symptoms among adolescents. The results of the twenty-four-month longitudinal study, which excluded youth that presented as ADHD symptom-positive at baseline, indicate a significant increase in ADHD symptoms among adolescents with a higher frequency use of digital media.
“In addition to being distressing for the person affected, having [ADHD] is associated with a number of different health and social outcomes like increased risk of substance use, involvement of the criminal justice system, and educational attainment,” the lead author, Adam M. Leventhal of the University of Southern California Keck School of Medicine, writes.
Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), a psychiatric disorder characterized by difficulty sustaining attention, hyperactivity, and impulsivity, is diagnosed in 1 out of 7 children in America, a number three times higher than experts cite as appropriate. Although the CDC recommends a combination of behavioral therapy and medication, this controversial diagnosis is most often treated with methylphenidate hydrochloride (Ritalin), a prescription which may alter the developing brain among children and youth.
“Because nongenetic environmental factors are associated with adolescent ADHD, increasing exposure to environmental risk factors may contribute to increasing ADHD rates in that population,” the researchers write. “A meta-analysis of studies conducted from 1987 to 2011 found that use of traditional forms of digital media (eg, television viewing and video game console playing) was modestly associated with ADHD and related outcomes. Digital media has since evolved.”
Leventhal and colleagues take a precautionary approach in their research, attempting to lower the occurrence of ADHD symptoms in youth by modifying environmental risk factors. If, for instance, specific environmental factors, like digital media use, can be changed, the researchers hope they can prevent the occurrence of these symptoms and lower the rate of diagnosis.
In one of the first attempts to assess the long-term association between ADHD symptom occurrence and high-frequency use of specific modern digital media platforms, the researchers recruited 2,587 high school students from Los Angeles County schools. The research team assessed for ADHD symptoms and frequency of modern digital media use at baseline, 6-month, 12-month, 18-month, and 24-month follow-ups. Students portraying ADHD symptom-positive behaviors at baseline were excluded from the study.
Following 24-months of data collection, 10.4% of the 2,587 youth involved in the study who reported the high-frequency use of digital media – including checking social media, texting, and playing video games on a phone or consul – reported ADHD symptoms, compared to only 4.6% who reported low-frequency use. Results found that males and adolescents with depressive symptoms were more likely to report ADHD symptoms overall.
This study provides support for the influence of nongenetic environmental factors on ADHD symptom development in adolescents, highlighting the need for a comprehensive understating of other factors influencing symptoms of ADHD. These results may provide empowerment for critics of the diagnosis and reinforcement for parents attempting to manage screen time with their children. Jenny Radesky, MD, of the University of Michigan School of Medicine concludes:
“With more timely digital media research, parents may feel more confident in the evidence underlying recommendations for how to manage the onslaught of media in their households.”
Ra, C. K., Cho, J., Stone, M. D., De La Cerda, J., Goldenson, N. I., Moroney, E., … & Leventhal, A. M. (2018). Association of Digital Media Use With Subsequent Symptoms of Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder Among Adolescents. JAMA, 320(3), 255-263. (Link)