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Does frequent digital media use contribute to ADHD?


Does very frequent use of digital media contribute to ADHD in adolescents? That’s the question explored in a recent study by researchers at the University of California Los Angeles (UCLA) and University of California San Diego (UCSD). The researchers found an association between frequent use of digital media (such as social media, texting and online video watching) and increased symptoms of ADHD among adolescents.

Symptoms of ADHD include inattention (distractibility, not being able to keep focus), hyperactivity (restlessness, excess movement not fitting to the setting) and impulsivity. ADHD was originally thought to begin only in early childhood, but there is now evidence that for some people it may start in adolescence or adulthood.teens media.jpg

Earlier studies found a modest association between use of traditional forms of digital media, such as television viewing and video game console playing, and ADHD-related outcomes. However, both the content of digital media and the way we use it have changed enormously in recent years.

Many teens and adults spend a significant amount of time each day on smartphones, tablets or other digital devices. In 2018, 95 percent of adolescents reported having access to a smartphone and 45 percent say they were online “almost constantly,” according to a 2018 Pew Research Center report.

The researchers at UCLA and UCSD wanted to look at the potential impact of today’s digital media, with its continuous availability, endless variety and features designed to draw you in and grab your attention. The study looked at 14 different digital media activities, including checking social media, texting, streaming television or movies, playing video games, online shopping, video chatting and others.

The researchers followed a group of 2,500 adolescents aged 15 and 16 for a two-year period. This age is particularly important because it is a period of significant changes in the brain, including the rapid development of the brain circuitry underlying attention and behavioral control. This process may be vulnerable to disruption, the study authors note. High frequency use of digital media was defined as using it “many times a day” versus other categories of 0, 1-2 times per week and 1-2 times per day.

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The study found that very frequent use of digital media was associated with a 10 percent increased risk of later ADHD symptoms overall. The most common high-frequency activity was checking social media sites—54 percent of students reported checking social media sites frequently. The teens used an average of 3.62 different digital media activities at high frequency. The frequent use of a greater number of digital activities was associated with significantly higher odds of ADHD symptoms.

While the researchers did find an association, the study did not show that media use is causing ADHD symptoms. The authors suggest several possible ways digital media relate to ADHD symptoms.

  • The experience of rapid shifts in attention and media multitasking has been associated with problems with executive functioning in earlier studies.
  • The always-on nature of mobile media takes away opportunities for the brain to rest, to learn to tolerate boredom or to practice mindfulness.
  • Frequent distractions from media devices (continual notifications of messages, postings, invitations, etc.) may disrupt development of attention and organization skills.
  • The rapid feedback and easy access to stimulating experiences could disrupt development of impulse control and patience.
  • Frequent digital media use can also replace time spent sleeping and exercising, both important to executive functioning.

The authors note that the associations between ADHD and media use may also relate to other factors, such as parent media use and parent involvement in youth media use. In a companion commentary on the study, Jenny Radesky, M.D., notes that the study affirms the guidelines of the American Academy of Pediatrics are recommending parent involvement in teen media use and prioritizing activities that promote adolescent executive functioning and well-being, including sleep, physical activity, distraction-free homework and positive interactions with family and friends.


  • Ra CK, Cho J, Stone MD, et al. 2018.Association of Digital Media Use with Subsequent Symptoms of Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder among Adolescents. JAMA 2018;320(3):255-263.
  • Radesky, J. Digital Media and Symptoms of Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder in Adolescents. (Commentary) JAMA 2018;320(3):237-239.
  • Anderson M, Jiang, J. Teens, Social Media and Technology. 2018. Pew Research Center www.peinternet.gor/2018/05/31/teens-social-media-technology-2018/


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