Under the Hood

ADHD Symptoms In Teens Linked To Social Media, Digital Streaming

The effects of growing up with social media have remained fairly ambiguous for the most, with mental health experts noting both benefits and drawbacks.

In their latest research, scientists from the University of Southern California (USC) have found that symptoms of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) in teenagers may be linked to heavy digital media use.

The study titled "Association of Digital Media Use with Subsequent Symptoms of Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder Among Adolescents" was published in the Journal of the American Medical Association on July 17.

While this is not the case with everyone, many people feel that their attention span has reduced, possibly in relation to their increasing use of digital media. The idea does not seem too farfetched, especially if one constantly absorbs information via 30-second videos or 280-character tweets.

ADHD refers to a brain disorder characterized by severe symptoms of inattention and restlessness. The longitudinal study explored whether symptoms in teens were associated with frequent use of specific modern digital media platforms 

"What's new is that previous studies on this topic were done many years ago, when social media, mobile phones, tablets and mobile apps didn't exist," said lead author Adam Leventhal, professor of preventive medicine and psychology at the Keck School of Medicine of USC. "New, mobile technologies can provide fast, high-intensity stimulation accessible all day, which has increased digital media exposure far beyond what's been studied before."

Recruited from across 10 public high schools in Los Angeles, the study tracked nearly 2,600 teenagers (aged 15 or 16) for a two-year period from 2014 to 2016. The research team monitored digital media activities in 10th grade and potential ADHD symptoms through 12th grade.

Fourteen activities including social networking, texting, online shopping, video chatting, streaming videos or music, and reading online content were taken into account. Of the 114 students who engaged in half of these activities, 9.5 percent reported ADHD symptoms. Meanwhile, the figure rose to 10.5 percent among those who engaged in all 14 activities.

On the other hand, among the 495 students who were not frequent users of any digital activity, only 4.6 percent reported ADHD symptoms. The observed associations were "persistent across the entire follow-up period," according to Leventhal.

He added that the study could not confirm whether the activities themselves contributed to the symptoms, though the association was statistically significant. "We can say with confidence that teens who were exposed to higher levels of digital media were significantly more likely to develop ADHD symptoms in the future," he said.

Among other limitations of the study, data was largely self-reported and the sample size was limited to teenagers residing in Los Angeles. Future studies may consider involving clinicians and using a larger, more diverse group of participants. 

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