Charles Wright Academy’s Academic Technology Coordinator Holly Gerla and Lower School Learning Specialist Mary Beth Cole—who also serves as the leader of the Pierce County CHADD chapter—help us wade through research on the evolving world of technology, screen time, and health for teens and tweens ahead of a May 18 screening of the documentary Screenagers at CWA. To learn more about this free event, please click here.
The intersection of technology and attention disorders is quite complicated, especially if you have read recent headlines like, Is the Internet Giving Us All ADHD? (Washington Post, March 2015) juxtaposed with other offerings claiming Technology Makes ADHD Better, Not Worse (Forbes, June 2015). How are we to make sense of all of this?
In our current digital age, we use technology to learn, communicate, organize, create, and be entertained. Our growing use of, and dependence on, these devices has teachers, researchers, and doctors asking questions about the impact of all this connectedness not only on our ability to focus and pay attention to tasks, but on our health and well-being in general. Within the last year, the phrase “adult onset ADHD” has actually become a thing (even though it’s not really a thing) as we all struggle to understand why we are so easily drawn to, and distracted by, our smart phones. Think “SQUIRREL!” from the movie Up.
Well, to link the distracting nature of technology directly to ADHD is a bit disingenuous. As author Caitlin Dewey points out in her piece for the Post, “The Web certainly may cause ADHD-like symptoms, and it could exacerbate the disorder in children and adults who suffer from it already … but there’s no evidence that Internet use could actually cause an otherwise healthy person to develop the disorder. After all, ADHD is believed to have a range of underlying genetic causes, things you couldn’t just ‘catch’ from a computer screen.” What many are actually alluding to when they discuss such distractibility is not ADHD, but multitasking, which years of brain research now shows to be an impossibility. No matter how good we think we are at multitasking, what we are actually doing is task-switching. Perhaps we don’t notice because we do it so rapidly, but each and every time our brain has to make the switch between tasks, however small, it takes a toll on our productivity. We are drawn to the beep, buzz, alert, or notification that forces the change in focus, and we lose track of where we are because we haven’t actually seen a single task through to the end. Hence we can feel like we are doing a lot of things but accomplishing nothing at the same time. Sound familiar?
As for the realities of ADHD and technology, parents are often baffled that their child can’t sit still long enough to read a book or complete a project, but put them in front a video game and they can play for hours. There are multiple factors at work here. Dr. Dimitri Christakis, professor of pediatrics at the University of Washington and the director of the Center for Child Health, Behavior and Development at Children’s Hospital in Seattle, urges us to think about ADHD differently than we currently do, not in terms of who can and cannot pay attention, but as a spectrum of “attentional capacity.” All of us exist somewhere on this continuum, and finding out what works for each of us is critical. The ADHD brain works differently. As Dr. Dale Archer puts it, “The chaotic effect of competing sources of information that can distract and derail others is like manna to an ADHDer, for whom these extreme states actually boost a feel-good response in the brain. It’s why many with ADHD appear so focused and functional in the middle of a maelstrom.” That super-focused video-game player? The stimuli of the game, and the rapid nature of your choices leading to immediate rewards, is exactly what an ADHD brain craves, he says. So in this case, the child’s attentional capacity for the game is greater than it might be for other activities that do not offer similar rewards. Who wouldn’t choose the game in those circumstances?
There is still cause for concern, however, in that too much time or attention devoted to a certain task can be a problem. Discussing the common misconception that people with ADHD simply cannot pay attention, Dr. Ned Hallowell, one of the country’s leading experts on ADHD, puts it this way: “People with ADHD can super-focus at times and pay better attention than anyone. When what they are doing interests them they often go into a state of hyper-focus, such that they lose track of the passage of time or their biological needs and drives. It is when they are not interested that their minds wander. But their minds do not go empty, which is why attention deficit is such a misnomer. In ADHD attention wanders, but it never disappears.” There are also negative social-emotional effects with extensive screen-time exposure for children with ADHD, as they may have more difficulties in social situations because they are unable to read other’s reactions, recognize emotions, or appropriately express their own emotions. Often times when children with ADHD hyper-focus while engaged in screen activities, they may become more withdrawn socially due to the amount of time that they spend on them. And though we can make sense of why the ADHD brain craves the fast-paced visual and auditory stimulation that TV and video games provide, that kind of concentration is not the kind they need to thrive in school or elsewhere in real life, according to Dr. Christopher Lucas, associate professor of child psychiatry New York University School of Medicine. “It’s not sustained attention in the absence of rewards,” he said. “It’s sustained attention with frequent intermittent rewards.”
Excessive screen time is not just a problem for kids with ADHD, however. As we shared with you at our January workshop, many American children are spending up to five to seven hours a day on screen-time activities. In 2011 the American Academy of Pediatrics recommended that children’s entertainment screen time be limited to less than one to two hours a day and for children under 2, none at all. Research has shown that too much screen time can increase a child’s risk for attention issues, as well as anxiety and depression. “Excessive screen time is associated with linguistic delays and poor memory performance in children,” writes Dr. Louis Weissman. “These delays can begin before the age of 2 when children are learning so much about communication by watching facial expressions, body movements, and tone of voice.” Despite what we know, however, following the AAP’s guidelines has proven difficult, if not impossible, for many families. Furthermore, technology has already rapidly advanced past where it was in 2011. Recognizing that not all screen time is the same, the AAP is now fast-tracking revised guidelines that will be released in October 2016, encouraging families to think of screen time more like the food pyramid. What is a “healthy media diet” for your child? How much time is too much? When your kids are on screens, what aren’t they doing? Children are becoming more sedentary as their screen time with tablets, laptops, and cell phone usage increases, and we know there are multiple factors contributing to its negative impact on their sleep, so the AAP recommends that parents establish screen-free zones at home by making sure that there are no televisions, computers, or video games in children’s bedrooms.
There is a lot for families to digest and consider when managing their use of technology and screen time, whether ADHD is present in the home or not. For all of us to maximize our attentional capacity, we need to critically look at how we are spending our time and seek the right balance. Whether it’s television, video games, or just surfing the Internet, how do you set healthy limits? For the parent who feels like Snapchat and Instagram have “stolen” their child from them, this means some pretty critical thinking needs to occur about how, when, and why your child has access to social media. Add adolescence and hormones to the mix, and we really have a lot to learn!
We invite you to join us at Charles Wright Academy on May 18 at 6:30 p.m. in the Middle School Commons for a free screening of the documentary Screenagers. Sponsored by our Parent Association, and supported by our local chapter of CHADD, this film offers us a chance to get together and discuss reasonable family guidelines and limits as we examine the impact of technology on our lives. We encourage you to bring your tween(s) and teen(s) who are at least 10 years old with you to watch the film! Technology coordinator Holly Gerla, Middle School Librarian Sam Harris, and parent coach Emily McMason, who hosted January’s Raising Kids in the Digital World workshop, will lead the post-film discussion. We look forward to seeing you!