A Nation of Kids with Gadgets and ADHD

Is technology to blame for the rise of behavioral disorders?

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Corrections Appended: July 12, 2013

The original version of this article included several quotes or statements that were not clearly attributed to the original sources.

Go to any family restaurant and you’ll be surrounded by kids, ranging from toddlers to teens. Some are antsy, others are well behaved, but a good number play on their phones and iPads.

Oh, and 1 in 10 has ADHD, or attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder.

It’s an epidemic. In the U.S., 6 million children have been diagnosed with ADHD, making it the most common childhood behavioral condition. In fact, over the past decade, the number of kids diagnosed with the disorder surged by over 50%. And in the past six years, that rate has jumped about 15% alone, according to new data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The rise in ADHD has coincided with the rise of mobile devices. According to a report by the Kaiser Family Foundation, children on average spend nearly seven and a half hours each day staring at screens. That’s up 20% from just five years ago. Is there a relationship between the two? Perhaps. It’s not so clear-cut.

This Is Your Kid’s Brain on Gadgets
Let’s go back to our family restaurant and shine a spotlight on that 1 in 10 kids with ADHD. And since boys with the condition outnumber girls, let’s call him Josh. Josh is playing Minecraft. His head is down, his attention rapt, his eyes riveted on the screen — he looks like every other child. But as he plays with the tablet, his mind is processing information much differently than the others running around the room.

If you could scan Josh’s brain, you’d see it’s working harder, trying to absorb the barrage of information and sensations. That increased brain activity makes it harder for him to focus on one task and control his impulses — hallmark signs of hyperactivity.

In fact, his ability to stay focused on the screen, and not anywhere else, is a characteristic of ADHD. When he plays with gadgets, it looks like concentration, but it’s not — at least not in the way we think of it. Christopher Lucas, associate professor of child psychiatry at New York University School of Medicine, told the New York Times that kids focus on video games and television in a different way than the attention they’ll use to thrive in school and life.

“It’s not sustained attention in the absence of rewards,” he told the New York Times. “It’s sustained attention with frequent intermittent rewards.”

When kids play games and rack up points, move to higher levels and unlock characters and goodies, their brain is rewarded by one thing: dopamine, a neurotransmitter that’s released each time they “win.” The chemical is often at the center of ADHD and their love affair with electronics. And some experts even believe children seek out those screens because they have problems with their dopamine systems. In fact, medication, like Ritalin, controls ADHD by increasing dopamine activity, so when Josh plays Minecraft, it’s as if he’s self-medicating, giving his brain that extra boost that his internal circuitry doesn’t offer.

That’s also why separating Josh from excessive use of his iPad isn’t easy. Kids with ADHD are usually ridiculed and ostracized, and that isolation sends them back to those gadgets. Since electronics are likely their only consistent companion, they often develop an emotional dependency that extends beyond dopamine.

Right now, Josh is utterly focused on the iPad, keeping constant eye contact with the screen. But without it — or his computer or portable gaming console — he’s a handful. It’s far easier for him to find solace in screens. They don’t shun him, and they give him a place to become a different person.

“They can also create false personas about themselves that are more positive than is realistic and thus make virtual friends online better than in person,” said Russell A. Barkley, a clinical professor of psychiatry and pediatrics at the Medical University of South Carolina.

Josh would benefit from taking an electronic “time out,” but ironically, he can’t pull himself away.

Teasing Out the Parallels
ADHD continues to elude science. Like autism, there is no conclusive test to diagnose the disorder, and doctors must learn by observing for symptoms — affected children often suffer from one of several other developmental or behavioral problems, such as depression or bipolar disorder.

Researchers are reluctant to say there is a direct correlation between gadgets and ADHD, but there are strong parallels between the upswing in diagnoses and an increase of screen time. One important finding: children and young adults who overdo TV and video games are nearly twice as likely to suffer from a variety of attention-span disorders, according to a study in the journal Pediatrics.

“ADHD is 10 times more common today than it was 20 years ago,” said Dimitri Christakis, the George Adkins professor of pediatrics at the University of Washington in Seattle. “Although it is clear that ADHD has a genetic basis, given that our genes have not changed appreciably in that time frame, it is likely that there are environmental factors that are contributing to this rise.”

Part of the problem is the fragmented, action-packed nature of electronic media. Christakis found that faster-paced shows increased the risk of attention issues. The brains of children adapt to that speed, so when they’re forced to work in the slower pace of life, they often struggle to pay attention because it’s less stimulating and rewarding.

When Josh puts down his iPad, his brain finds the real-world underwhelming compared with virtual ones.

For example, take a closer look at Josh and his beloved Minecraft: the game operates on its own day-and-night schedule, so he experiences three days’ worth of action within just one hour. When he goes back to life, he literally feels a drag — like the feeling you get from stepping off a movable walkway at the airport.

Christakis and others, though, concede the science is still emerging. “If I thought I knew the answer definitively, as to what was causing ADHD,” he said, “I wouldn’t still be doing research.”

A New Approach
ADHD isn’t a short-term condition. While sufferers often outgrow the symptoms, others — like high-profile Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps — learn to deal with it well into adulthood. And the continued bombardment of technology requires changes in the way we deal with, accommodate and even think about the condition.

“There continues to be, in the media and the public, this idea of ADHD as an overblown problem that’s being overtreated,” William Barbaresi, director of the Developmental Medicine Center at Boston Children’s Hospital, told Forbes. “We have to create a system that’s designed to treat ADHD as chronic health issue, not just a kid disorder.”

But some experts think the growing attachment to our gadgets is part of the solution. “Maybe the kids’ focus on games could be used to draw them out as a way of developing social skills,” said Stephen Shore, author of Beyond the Wall: Personal Experiences With Autism and Asperger Syndrome. Nonverbal until the age of 4, he was diagnosed with “strong autistic tendencies.” Today, he’s a professor of special education at Adelphi University.

Rather than looking at the issue as a problem, Shore believes we need to view it as a challenge. “These games are compelling to the kids, and instead of battling to eliminate them, we could use them to actually develop social skills.”

In the end, the first step to finding a cure is to understand the causes and conditions. And one piece, it seems, is to understand the impact of technology on kids like Josh. And let him enjoy his iPad, instead of being inadvertently harmed by it.

This article was written by Margaret Rock and originally appeared on Mobiledia.

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ADHD is cognitive defect, not of lively children but of "experts" trying to tell us that 10% of the population is abnormal. I've had the classic symptoms of ADHD all my life but nevertheless had a career as a brain researcher because 50 years ago when I wanted to study biology it hadn't been invented. Now I'm retired and one year into a diploma in portrait painting. I've always chased the next new thing and it's been a great ride; if that's ADHD I was lucky. Both personally and as someone who spent a lifetime studying brain chemistry I believe the problem lies with the dull minded bureaucrats who want to stick labels on the boundless human spirit. Change the approach not the kids.


BULL!  I am a 73 yr old woman.  I took adhd to kindergarten with me at four.  No tv or any gadgets that long ago.  Plus I was a girl.  No one had even heard about ADHD and when they did it was just for boys.  I spent most of kindergarten in the corner.  I was dubed a "Problem child".  I agree with Popparex!

JosieBehnke like.author.displayName 1 Like

My son has ADHD, he also has been diagnosed with OCD recently. I can tell you with him, for school he needs his meds. During the summer he is off them, unless we know he is going to be in a situation where he can't just go and run off his energy. He is aware of his problem and likes it better when he is on his meds. Oh and he does chores at home, he is disciplined and he can sit still and focus when he is not on his meds. But he is 9 and prefers to run outside (he lives on a farm and has the ability to do so) and play. I have seen kids that were mus-diagnosed with ADHD, parents who want to just have "calm" kids and not bother with the work. I have a friend who her oldest son is the same way, and looking back his father probably was as well but never was put on the meds for it.

Popparex like.author.displayName 1 Like

Ok...  Did anyone watch the TED talk above?  I love the thought "ADHD is a cognitive difference, NOT a disorder".  I wasn't diagnosed until i was 42.  My entire life i felt there was something wrong with ME. I did so many things, had so many interests that i never could decide on a career. At 56 i still change careers on a whim.  Luckily, ADHD gives me one huge advantage over normal humans.. i can problem solve like nobody's business and that makes me hugely successful in my field.  People who focus too narrowly on a problem often miss the solution because they can't see out of the box.  ADHD allows me to see all the related pieces floating out there that can be pulled together.

My point is this...  There was no such thing as ADHD when i was in school.  I was just a lazy kid who never did his homework and never finished a project, and since there WERE NO VIDEO GAMES, i find it highly unlikely that there was a cause/effect relationship. Thank goodness i was smart enough to get straight A's else i would have been a total failure in the eyes of the school system.

I remember my guidance counselor in H.S. telling me there was no sense in going to college.  She was right for the wrong reason. In her eyes, or at least the message that I received, was simply you are not smart enough to make it in college.  I tried anyway, and failed. I tried again and failed. and again, likewise.... I now hold more credits than most people with PhDs, but i still have no degree. BUT that's OK.  Today I view my ADHD as an advantage, NOT a disability.  IF not for my ADHD i would not have enjoyed the many experiences that i have been through. my constant search for something different.

STOP treating it as a disorder and learn to allow the ADHD child to develop their own way.  What possible reason is there to fail a kid because they never do homework, don't pay attention in class, and they still seem to hold an A average?  I didn't understand it then and i don't understand it now.

Don't misunderstand me.  I think there is a place for medication. It's just not a universal cure. Explore but don't rely. There's too much to LOVE about ADHD.


@Popparex I agree with you 100%  I am smart too!  My right brain is the bomb...not sure if I have a left brain at all.  My adhd is a gift!  I too was diagnosed at 48 because I was going to be let go cause I can't follow wire and stuff.   BUT the had me tested and I was diagnosed with adhd and dyslexia SOOO they had to place me in a job I could do.  Disabilites act.  Thanks for that!  Recently for the first time,  my MD wanted to try me on Adderall XR!  OMG!  I came alive.  It  hasn't cure me but Iit sure has made my life lots more fun and at my age what more could I wish for?  Nice meeting you Popparex!


Seriously?  There is in "increase in ADHD" in the last 10 years, or there is an "increase *in the diagnosis* of ADHD in the last 10 years"?  When you read the peer reviewed ADHD related journal articles, they all caution that the upswing in diagnosed cases includes an uncalculated change in the observation/diagnosis by doctors and psychologists which makes a calculation of any rate of change of the prevalence of ADHD nearly impossible.  Also, the last 10 years have seen an incredible explosion of cheap electronic devices. My guess is that the non-ADHD community has also greatly increased their electronics use. 

 Finally, I completely agree that a continued focus on ADD issues into adulthood is imperative.  The scientific literature suggests that ADHD is a neurological issue that does not disappear and does not self-correct. The "H" normally comes under control as maturity improves coping mechanisms, but the ADD adult is simply not (and never will be) neurologically wired in the same way as a neurotypical adult.


Now we have another cause of AD/HD ....mobile devices!! I am just so tired of this.I find it interesting that none of leading experts in the field of AD/HD were includes  in this article i.e  Dr.Russell Barkley.Dr Edward Hollowell..... AD/HD is a real disorder.Please speak to them about it please.


tbharley like.author.displayName 1 Like

Actually, the following quote is a misnomer.  The diagnosis criteria for ADHD 20 years ago was vastly different.  Children who could concentrate on video games were not diagnosed with ADHD, because they could concentrate.  Experts hadn't yet recognized the self soothing nature of the act of playing video games.

“ADHD is 10 times more common today than it was 20 years ago,” said Dimitri Christakis, the George Adkins professor of pediatrics at the University of Washington in Seattle. “Although it is clear that ADHD has a genetic basis, given that our genes have not changed appreciably in that time frame, it is likely that there are environmental factors that are contributing to this rise.


ADHD has been around longer than that,and I know why there has been an upsurge in cases.

1.Every year there will be so many kids born that truly do have it.

2.Doctors and teachers just LOVE telling parents to put they're kids on drugs.

Think I'm joking? I had two boys and according to the teachers,both were ADHD. I took them to doctors and told the doctor outright, 'I'm not drugging my kid for you or anyone else,so don't even try'.The first one the doctor said hes a boy! Boys have lots of energy at this age (very true for those boys in the 4-8 year age range). He has a ton of energy and needs to be more physical than girls.The other kid? Yes they said he was hyper but it was behavioral,and drugs wouldn't help.I had to find a new method of discipline that worked for him.I also put him in a traditional school where he had to 'toe the line'.It kept his behavior in line.Are there truly kids that can't control themselves?Yes there are,and for those they do need the drugs.But parents not knowing how to make they're kids mind anymore are at a loss as to what to do with them.Therefore drugging them sounds like a way to get the child under control.Doctors either tire of hearing mothers complain about the kids or love pushing pills off,so they write the prescriptions.Teachers don't want to deal with making the children mind anymore either out of laziness or fear of the parents,so label most of the kids ADHD.Parents,if you have any question in the back of your mind about whether or not your child is truly ADHD, trust your instincts.Don't just agree with a teacher or the doctor.You have your childs best interests at heart,not them. Demand full testing on your child,weigh out your options before drugging.Then if all else fails you can always revert to the drugs,then you'll know they are truly ADHD.


I have often thought this condition could be caused by fast food, especially when the parents eat a lot of it. Then when the woman becomes pregnant, she passes this along to the fetus.  Letting the child enjoy the 'iPad', seems like making this a vicious cycle. Why start a child on an iPad or any electronic game/toy at all?  What happened to parents/people teaching children instead of depending on mechanical instruments.


I wonder if its from kids starting puberty around the 3rd grade due to steroids in meat and dairy food.  Western Europe doesn't put steroids in food because kids need to start puberty at about 12 or 13 years old.


ADHD is indeed an epidemic in this country. Those who claim it is better diagnosis and/or over diagnosis are burying their head in the sand. If you travel to other countries, the children are well behaved and not hyperactive or aggressive like American children. I believe that environmental toxins such as processed foods, pharmaceutical drugs, chemicals in consumer products, our water system, pollution, etc. are causing epigenetic changes in gene expression and are being passed down to our offspring in the form of autism spectrum disorders, ADHD, mental health issues, sensory processing disorders, violent/aggressive behaviors, etc. When will this country wake up and realize we are poisoning our children?


@Mama2be I remain convinced that this is an epidemic of diagnosis, not occurrence. When Driven to Distraction came out in the Nineties, every parent thought the book explained their child perfectly (diagnoses for yeast infections similarly skyrocketed after The Yeast Connection was published a decade earlier). When I was a child in the Seventies, "hyperactvity" was all the rage. There are more diagnoses of ADHD because more parents (sometimes at the behest of teachers) take their children in to be examined for it, and analysis often finds what it's looking for. ADD is so embedded in pop culture that most people diagnose themselves with it, at least half-jokingly ("I'm totally ADD").

For as long as I can remember, teachers from foreign countries have always complained about American students as discipline problems incapable of giving teachers their undivided attention. Characterizing this decades-old phenomenon as ADHD is medical dilettantism.


@Mama2be Actually you're wrong. Don't rely on your "travel to other countries" to make that sweeping statement. Read the scientific literature. What you're saying is simply not based in scientific fact. In countries where the American ADHD diagnostic criteria is used (as well as sensory processing disorder and autism), we find that all populations have some prevalence of genetically controlled neurological issues. The levels have not been linked to any measured environmental factor, including chemicals and/or toxins.


Are you truly denying that there is an asd epidemic in this country? There are populations around the world where autism is simply not seen in children. Even if there are some levels of neurological disorders found in foreign populations, it's not to the degree or extent in our country. So what does that tell you? And science has not linked environmental toxins to these disorders because the research has not yet been done. There is no such thing as a genetic epidemic my friend.

cjh2nd like.author.displayName 1 Like


i believe a lot of it stems from parents in this country never saying "no" to or disciplining their children.  why should a 5 year old be well behaved and calm when bouncing off the walls and making a scene gets mommy and daddy's attention and then they give the child what he or she wanted in the first place?   and why should mommy and daddy bother disciplining their children when they can get pills to calm their kids down without making themselves look like the bad guys

chris.nack like.author.displayName like.author.displayName 2 Like

@cjh2nd @Mama2be 

I'm the father of two young boys with ADHD.  In addition to the impulsivity and hyperactivity, my eldest exhibits executive function disorder, and oppositional defiance.  The amount of chaos caused by these conditions have caused an incredible amount of harm to my family.  I can assure you that never saying "no" or never disciplining my boys is NOT a causal factor.  At the risk of sounding rude, you're just wrong on this one.  

IdleJack like.author.displayName like.author.displayName 2 Like

or could it be that it's diagnosed now, how many kids had dyslexia before it was recognised, it ain't rocket science



I agree!  I took ADHD to kindergarten with me in 1945!  Plus I'm a female.  In the past it was for boys only!

felinefrenz like.author.displayName like.author.displayName 2 Like


I dated a guy in high school, I was in the 10th-11th grade. He was in the 8th grade and driving himself to school. People thought he was stupid in some way but he didn't act stupid, it was so hard for him to learn. He found out when he was 20yrs. old that he was dyslexic. Knowing that opened new doors for him and he is a successful photographer now.