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Screen Time: A Significant Environmental Factor of ADHD

A new Canadian study published today confirms different screen time activities (social media, TV viewing, video gaming, and computer use) negatively impacts ADHD symptoms in adolescents, a proximal indicator of risk for mental health problems.  Parents, caregivers, and ADHD interventionists should take notice of this large study, conducted on nearly 4000 adolescents, as it delved into various factors affecting ADHD symptoms over time. The connection between screen time and neurological disruptions has been well studied since 2012 most notably by Dr. Victoria Dunkley. Many unbiased (non Big-Tech influenced/funded) studies continue to underscore the importance of parental harm reduction efforts when it comes to delaying screen time exposure in young children and limiting teenage access to social media and gaming until age 18 to prevent ADHD and other neurological challenges that can potentially last a lifetime. 

Key findings of this recent study indicated a direct associations between social media use, TV viewing, and video gaming with ADHD symptoms, both across individuals and within the same person simultaneously. Increases in any type of screen time were linked to immediate rises in ADHD symptoms, suggesting a short-term negative impact along with long term neurological disruptions. While neuropsychological functions like impulsivity, response inhibition, and working memory were evaluated as potential risk factors, their direct role in the link between screen time and ADHD symptoms was not significant, isolating screen time as a contributing factor. Social media was found to affect ADHD symptoms the most through impulsivity, especially among heavy users. Parents often struggle to effectively reduce or eliminate screen time and are encouraged to seek help from specialists in screen time routines like those at Screen Time Clinic.

The prevalence of ADHD among adolescents has greatly increased since the launch of iPad and iPhone and increased programming on TV with the advances of technology. This presents a considerable burden to parents, as well as economic and societal implications. Recognizing that ADHD risk involves genetic as well as environmental factors, this study aimed to identify potential environmental influences that could be modified to reduce symptoms and prevent ADHD — finding a definite link between screen time and the rising severity of ADHD symptoms. The ever-expanding digital landscape, characterized by constant exposure to online content, is considered a contributing factor to adolescent neurodevelopmental interference, leading to behavior disorders and ADHD-related issues.

Adolescents spend considerable time on digital devices, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic, and often engage with multiple screens simultaneously. Digital platforms are designed to capture and sustain attention, which may influence habit formation and increased use among young individuals. However, the full impact of such digital exposure on neurodevelopment, particularly in relation to ADHD symptoms, is not fully comprehended.

The research underscores the critical role of impulsivity, attention, and reward processes, which are fundamental in driving ADHD behavioral impairments. Deficits in working memory and inhibitory control are typical among individuals with ADHD, emphasizing the potential impact of increased screen time on these crucial cognitive functions.


Trait impulsivity, which moderately correlates with individual neuropsychological measures, like response inhibition and working memory, is considered a multifaceted construct and a key proximal indicator of risk for externalising mental health problems”

The findings stress the importance of managing and reducing adolescent screen time, recommending delaying access to social media until the age of 18 as a best practice. Understanding the link between screen time and ADHD symptoms, especially mediated through impulsivity and cognitive functions, is crucial in informing strategies to support adolescent mental health and mitigate the risk of ADHD-related issues. Early screen time should be avoided until age 7 then introduced cautiously with an intentional plan that includes limits and monitoring strategies, specialists in screen time routines like those at Screen Time Clinic can assist parents with intervention and protection best practices.

The study highlighted a common vulnerability between heavy screen time and ADHD risk. Adolescents vulnerable to ADHD might be drawn to digital media due to its immediate and stimulating content that doesn’t require sustained attention or cognitive control. The findings also suggested that digital media might appeal to adolescents with higher ADHD symptoms due to impaired executive control and increased sensitivity to external stimuli. This increase risk of overuse for children, teens (and even adults) with ADHD symptoms should be a primary area of concern for parents of minors to help developing brains avoid media exposure when young and limit and monitor time as children get older, delaying access to social media and gaming until age 18, being careful of compulsive scrolling and over-consumption of news and information that is often sensationalized online and difficult to self-regulate.

Additionally, the study emphasized the role of social media in predicting ADHD symptoms through a pathway involving inhibitory control and impulsivity. This pathway demonstrated a temporal relationship, indicating that increased social media usage leads to inhibitory control difficulties, subsequently leading to more impulsive behaviors and increased long term ADHD symptoms.

This confirms studies from years ago, including this one from 2016 when social media use was not so prevalent, showing high schoolers starting to use social media and developing ADHD symptoms when previously they had none! “Leventhal and his team looked at surveys of nearly 2,600 10th graders, between the ages of 15 and 16, from the Los Angeles area. At the beginning of their research, none had symptoms of ADHD. Then more than half of the participants said that they frequently checked social media sites and texted. About 40 percent said they looked at photos or streamed videos constantly, while 38 percent streamed or downloaded music frequently… found that those most using to social media sites were 53 percent more likely to develop symptoms of ADHD. Texters were 21 percent more likely than infrequent texters to develop the symptoms, and fans of streaming videos and photos were 45 percent more likely to show the symptoms.” 

Overall, the research underscores the significance of monitoring screen time during adolescence to mitigate the risk of exacerbating ADHD symptoms through disrupted neurocognitive functioning and impulsive behaviors. It highlights the need to consider how digital media impacts cognitive and behavioral aspects, particularly with respect to ADHD symptoms, and emphasizes the importance of understanding these relationships for more effective intervention strategies. Parents often struggle to effectively reduce or eliminate screen time and are encouraged to seek help from specialists in screen time routines like those at Screen Time Clinic.

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