Notes on Parenting

Insights for parenting babies, toddlers, teens, and young adults.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Screen Time and ADHD: What's the Connection

Many parents are often mystified by the fact that their child can sit for hours (if allowed) in front of a screen watching TV or playing a video game and yet cannot seem to sit still and focus on school work or homework. Teachers may suggest that these children have attention problems (e.g., ADHD) but parents question this since their child can concentrate and focus on TV or video games. What’s going on?

A recent New York Times article addressed this interesting question with some insightful child development research. Several lines of research have linked large amounts of screen time (TV and/or video games) with a diagnosis of ADHD. The question that remains, however, is whether screen time causes ADHD or is there something about the brain function of children with ADHD that makes them more attracted to focusing on a screen for large amounts of time. There is some scientific evidence to support both theories.

First, researchers point out that watching TV and especially playing video games provides the viewer with a series of constant “rewards.” When points are scored on a game or something new happens on the TV show, the brain of the viewer experiences a little shot of the neurotransmitter dopamine. Curiously, dopamine is the same chemical that is increased by the use of the common ADHD medication, Ritalin. Researchers hypothesize that children with ADHD are drawn to screen activity because of its ability to provide a “reward” in the form of dopamine, which their brains may be lacking.

On the other hand, some research has linked the amount of screen time children watch to attention problems later in life. Does this mean that large amounts of screen time cause ADHD? Well, researchers say it may be an influence. Children who watch TV or video games a lot get used to the fast-paced, constant activity. Once their brain is habituated to this fast-paced activity, everything else, including real life and school work, seems boring by contrast. Additionally, research has also shown that young children’s play is less focused when a TV is on in the background and, not surprisingly, it is harder for children to learn in a noisy environment.

There may be something more going on here too, however. New research is also showing that children diagnosed with ADHD are more likely to have problems with social interactions, for example with peers. Scientists suspect that all these factors may work together to make screen time more enticing to children with ADHD. They may be drawn to the dopamine “reward” offered by video games, but may also find solace in the games since they may have trouble interacting with friends in real life. This, in turn, may result in even more screen time, which may, in fact perpetuate the attention problems.

In the end, regardless of which line of research is more strongly supported, the advice child development specialists and doctors offer to parents is the same: limit screen time for your children, do not allow screens in kid’s bedrooms, and focus on positive family interactions (without technology). To be honest, this is advice that most of us adults can benefit from as well. How many of us constantly check our email or Facebook page to see what’s new. Sound familiar? We adults can be lured by this little dopamine “fix” as well. Ok, now I’m turning off my computer!

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