The Link Between Smartphones and ADHD in Teens

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Whether texting, streaming or posting, teens spend a lot of time on their digital devices. How much time? A recent Common Sense Media survey found teens spend nearly nine hours per day using online media. According to scientists, there may be a link between lengthy digital device use and symptoms of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD).

Researchers spent two years tracking nearly 2,600 students in 10th grade in one of the first studies to look at modern digital media and ADHD risk. According to Child Trends News Service, they discovered “those who used their digital devices more frequently were twice as likely to show symptoms of ADHD.”

In fact, more than 10% of the subjects who used 14 popular digital media platforms frequently “developed ADHD symptoms,” compared to just 4.6% who weren’t frequent users.

Per Adam Leventhal, an author of the study, previous research has only made a general connection between the effects of TV or video games and the symptoms of ADHD. Until recently, not much was known about the effects of smartphones and ADHD.

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Photo: LumiNola, iStock

Cause and Effect

Scientists still need to determine if excessive use of smartphones and digital media have a causal link to ADHD, or if they merely feed into behaviors traditionally linked to the disorder.

Children with ADHD typically struggle with a number of symptoms, such as:

  • Inattention
  • Hyperactivity
  • Disorganization
  • Impulsive behavior

Whether or not these behaviors are caused or exacerbated by the use of digital devices requires further investigation. Leventhal cautioned that his study shouldn’t be taken as evidence that devices cause ADHD. “We don’t know that,” Leventhal, who’s also a psychologist and associate professor of preventive medicine at the University of Southern California (USC) said.

Displaying symptoms of ADHD is very different than an official diagnosis, which requires a multi-tiered and more thorough approach by medical professionals. While an association is not the same as causation, the results gave Leventhal pause nonetheless. “To have 10-ish percent [of study participants] have the occurrence of new symptoms is fairly high.”

Factors that were included

First and foremost, Leventhal used children who didn’t have an ADHD diagnosis for a baseline. He and his colleagues also controlled for factors such as family income, race and pre-existing mental health conditions.

Jenny Radesky, a pediatrician at the University of Michigan, wrote about the study for JAMA (but did not contribute directly). In her editorial, she claims that Leventhal was wise to include teens from varied socioeconomic backgrounds, because “sociodemographic diversity has been a limitation of prior studies on digital media.” 

While test subjects were not previously diagnosed with ADHD, Radesky noted that “there is probably a sub-sample of kids who are more vulnerable.” For example, she claimed children with previous mental health problems were far more likely to develop symptoms of ADHD.

Factors that were not included

One influence that was not captured in the study was the effect of sleep on a subject’s ability to focus. Other studies have shown social media use is associated with disrupted sleeping patterns, which could also manifest as inattentiveness, distraction and poor decision-making.

Another interesting component is family dynamics. Radesky reported life at home wasn’t taken into consideration. “How involved were the parents?” she asked. “How much media is being used at home by the parents? The more parents are on their phone, the more teens are likely to be, as well.” 

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Photo: Patat, iStock

Whether involved directly in the study or not, all experts agreed conclusively that too much screen time can have a negative impact on children. Common Sense Media included the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommendations for parents looking to reduce the amount of time that their children spend in front of a screen:

  • Make sure teens participate in a variety of free-time activities, such as clubs or sports. 
  • Don’t allow phones at the dinner table or at bedtime. 
  • Teach your teen about internet safety. 
  • Cut down on screen time (no more than two hours per day).

No parent wants to see their child consumed by media. In this brave new digital world, where it’s easier to swipe than socialize, putting down the smartphone and playing outside with other kids is often the best option.

Story inspired by this report from Child Trends New Service.

Smartphones and ADHD — Sources

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