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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