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Digital Media & ADHD: Not So Fast!

 

Numerous studies are published each month in the professional literature, and sometimes those studies get picked up by the media. This week, a study conducted by researchers from the University of Southern California was published and got picked up big time, and we’re concerned.

The study, entitled “Association of Digital Media Use with Subsequent Symptoms of Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder Among Adolescents” published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) has been plastered all over the national and local media outlets. Study findings are essentially what the title says – digital media use was associated with ADHD symptoms in a group of adolescents. However, a closer look at the study reveals some limitations not addressed by the study authors that are critical factors that should suggest a healthy caution for the general public’s interpretation.

First, the authors rely on self-report measures of symptoms to determine the presence or absence of ADHD, that is inclusion or exclusion from the study, and subsequent implication of ADHD occurrence post digital media use. Almost every practitioner in the field understands that this is insufficient to make an ADHD determination; it’s a multifaceted process that relies much more heavily on parent and teacher ratings and input than self-ratings which can be fraught with issues. Therefore, the results may be misleading to the general public.

Second, the authors do not address previous research that demonstrates the links between digital media use/overuse with subsequent fatigue and anxiety; two very common problems that mimic ADHD through the presentation of ADHD-like symptoms. Factors such as sleep (or lack thereof), worry, stress, or general anxiety were not accounted for in the study; all commonly reported problems associated with digital media use/overuse. Practitioners understand that when evaluating an adolescent for ADHD, many of these factors must be examined and ruled-out as the primary causes for the presenting symptoms…maybe it’s not ADHD, maybe it’s sleep deprivation…or any number of things.

There are other limitations, some addressed, some not, but those two critical ones jumped out immediately as concerning.

Also, it could be that individuals with shorter attention spans, but not necessarily ADHD, are drawn more to digital media because of the stimulation that the digital media provides. Not only social media, but TV shows, movies, and other media provide a stream of content that is constantly changing.

We’re not saying that digital media use/overuse isn’t problematic or doesn’t cause ADHD-like symptoms, and we’re not saying it’s bad research, but we are saying that it’s a stretch to link the digital media use/overuse to an ADHD diagnosis based upon limitations to the study that were not addressed.

Limiting digital media use for children and adolescents is a great idea regardless, but we suggest more caution with the study authors’ conclusions and more caution with the media’s presentation of the findings. Much more research is needed.

For a comprehensive evaluation for ADHD, please contact us at klass@utk.edu or 865-974-6177.

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