Does Social Media Cause ADHD?

If you’ve ever tried holding a conversation with a teenager who can’t bear to look up from their phone for more than a few seconds at a time, you probably subscribe to the belief that in many ways, technology has made it harder to socialize in real life.

Despite the fact that we can now reach out to someone across the world in seconds, sometimes it feels like we’d be better off without it.

Now, those who argue social media makes people less attentive to the world around them seemingly have science on their side. Research has emerged suggesting teenagers who depend more on digital technology to socialize could be more likely to show symptoms of attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, or ADHD.

ADHD is often characterized by an inability to pay attention, difficulty listening, and trouble following directions.

Spending a lot of time on your phone can certainly make these things more challenging — especially for a teen whose brain hasn’t finished developing yet. But does that mean what kids are doing while spending time on their phones actually causes these problems?

A study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association followed over 2,000 high school students for two years, tracking their use of “digital media” and devices. The results have caused many to question whether social media — and the devices kids use to access it — causes ADHD.

Social media

Social media | iStock.com/beer5020

According to the research, teens who accessed various forms of digital media several times a day were more likely to report ADHD-like symptoms than those who accessed it less frequently.

But don’t immediately vow to take your kids’ phones away because of one study’s supposed results. These symptoms were self-reported, for one thing. That’s not always the most accurate way to gather data when you’re trying to come up with a surefire conclusion (which this study did not).

And for another, a teenager who reports “ADHD-like symptoms” doesn’t necessarily have ADHD. They might report a few symptoms, but not meet the full criteria for the condition.

Another major red flag to watch out for when interpreting these findings is that researchers don’t know if participants would have reported these same symptoms before having their social media and gadget use evaluated.

This ties back to the “correlation vs. causation” debate you’ve probably heard before. Just because two things happen to share a common link doesn’t mean they’re directly related to one another.

A high school student might show signs of ADHD and spend a lot of time on his phone, for example. But that doesn’t mean that spending a lot of time on his phone caused those symptoms.

Social media apps

Social media apps | iStock.com/Anatolii Babii

Even if social media, gadgets, and other technologies don’t cause ADHD, are they affecting our ability to focus?

Technically, you disrupt your brain’s focus every time you stop in the middle of what you’re doing to check Twitter. Every text message is urgent, every email needs immediate checking, and since many of us are in constant communication on a daily basis, all this takes a lot of time away from what we’re actually supposed to be doing.

But just because you or your kids face constant interruption from your wallet-sized computer doesn’t mean you have ADHD — or that there’s nothing you can do to stop it. You have the power to let a new text sit there. Your phone has an off button for a reason.

Based on what we know about ADHD, it’s pretty safe to say Facebook and Twitter aren’t underlying causes. Notifications are distracting, but that’s about it.

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