Does spending a lot of time online cause symptoms of ADHD in teens? A new large-scale study suggests that it might. But does it prove the case?
The study was published in the Journal of the American Medical Association. It was also widely covered in the news. Researchers looked at 2,500 high-schoolers in California. These 15- and 16-year-olds used digital media in high amounts, especially social media. The study defined “high amounts” as “many times a day.”
The teens didn’t have ADHD but were surveyed about symptoms every six months for two years. They were asked to fill out a questionnaire and report on a 0 to 3 scale how often they had symptoms of ADHD.
We asked Understood experts Thomas E. Brown, Jodi Gold and Bob Cunningham to weigh in on the study.
Researchers found an increase in ADHD symptoms in teens who were online many times a day. Kids who showed no symptoms developed them after two years of frequent digital media use. The study called this connection “statistically significant but modest.”
The researchers also said that more research is needed to determine if high digital media use was the cause of the increases.
Our group of experts said the same thing. The study may have shown an increase in ADHD symptoms. But it’s not clear whether frequent use of digital media caused the increase, said Cunningham.
Gold agreed that excessive digital media usage may lead to ADHD symptoms like decreased attention and worsened impulse control. But, she said, “digital media does not cause the diagnosis of ADHD.”
Key Takeaways for Parents
Using digital media many times a day might increase the symptoms of ADHD. But that doesn’t mean it causes ADHD.
No study clearly proves that frequent digital media use causes ADHD, according to Brown. “Simply asking teens how often they have experienced symptoms of ADHD doesn’t give any valid indication of whether they do or don’t have ADHD,” he added.
In fact, symptoms of ADHD are problems that everyone has sometimes. “Diagnosis of ADHD rests on how much the individual’s day-to-day functioning is impaired by those symptoms,” said Brown.
Gold added that some use of digital media can be helpful to children and teens. “Video games can promote social skills and help build cognitive skills when used in moderation,” she said.
Watch as Gold talks more about the pros and cons of video games for kids with ADHD and how to help kids transition away from video games. See how to help kids with ADHD manage screen time. And download a cell phone contract for your child.
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About the author
Alexis Clark, MA, MS is a freelance editor for Understood and an adjunct professor at Columbia Journalism School.