Parents frequently ask me, “Do iPads, TVs, DVDs, video games (insert any media device really) cause ADD/ADHD?” As a parent and as a children’s technology researcher, this is a valid concern. I totally understand.
At times as I have watched my son quickly flit between apps on my iPad, I have wondered the same thing. And in recent days Simon Sinek’s appearance on Bloomberg TV has re-ignited this concern.
If you haven’t watched Sinek’s latest video, check it out below or click here.
According to Sinek, Millenials (people born between 1983 and 2000) have ‘scatter-brains’. And he (bravely) suggests that their parents AND technology are to blame.
Sinek sights a Northwestern University Study that reports a 66% increase in the diagnosis of ADHD in 10 years. Sinek attributes this increase to misdiagnosis. He proposes that the symptoms (distractibility, inability to hold attention) are more to do with how millenials are raised. Millennials have been raised in a self-indulged, egocentric culture because of their parents’ (predominantly baby boomers) fears of unemployment.
As a result, millenials have been raised to look after themselves. It’s all about me. (Just consider the popularity of ‘selfies’ amongst millenials and you’ll see this concept in action). Millenials have been raised, according to Sinek, to look out for number one. He suggests that this egocentric culture, coupled with the advent of social media has led to this ‘scatter-brain’ culture. And it is this ‘scatter-brain’ phenomenon that is often misdiagnosed as ADD/ADHD.
Sinek’s hypothesis: we do not have an increase in ADD/ADHD. We simply have misdiagnoses. We have a generation (and possibly future generations) who are addicted to technology and as a result are presenting as ADD/ADHD.
Now before I go any further, I know this is a very sensitive topic (I was very wary to write this post). I am NOT proposing that ADD/ADHD do not exist. In my (humble and professional) opinion, there are certainly children who demonstrate behavioural characteristics of ADD/ADHD. When I was a teacher I certainly taught my fair share of these children.
There are many elements of Sinek’s hypothesis that I agree with (and some that I do not).
So let’s start with where I agree with Sinek:
*There is probably an over-diagnosis of ADD/ADHD. I am NOT a psychologist so I am nervous about entering this debate (I know it is dangerous territory to enter). However, a 66% increase in the diagnosis of the condition over 10 years does seem significant. Are the behavioural traits of ADD/ADHD now more widely accepted? Have we simply labeled a condition that has existed for a long time? I really don’t know. We are very quick to label ‘conditions’, medicalise them and then ‘treat’ them. And in some instances, after a thorough diagnosis, medical treatment is the best course of action to take. However, sometimes we are looking for a ‘label’ and a quick solution.
*Millenials (and the iGen) EXPECT instant gratification. I’m not telling you anything new here. These children have grown up knowing that the only way to buy music is through the click of a button on iTunes (no saving up your pocket money to go to a music store to buy a CD). Millenials send emails and SMS, not letters and postcards. They pull out their smartphone to find directions to a friend’s house, not the street map (oh, how I wish I could have traded the Greggory’s for my smartphone ten years ago!).
*Some Millenials are ADDICTED to technology. But so too are many adults (and iGen children as well). In 2013 the fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), which is a manual used by clinicians and researchers to diagnose and classify mental disorders, acknowledged that ‘Internet Gaming Disorder’ is a disease warranting further clinical research. It may soon be considered as a legitimate ‘mental illness’. It is true that we have a proportion of millenials, adults and younger children too who would be considered ‘pathological users’ of digital devices. However, this is only a small proportion of the population and this is unlikely to account for the significant increase in the diagnosis of ADD/ADHD. So perhaps technology addiction is not causing the increased rates of ADD/ADHD diagnoses.
*Technology does cause DOPAMINE SQURTS in the brain. This is why technology can be so addictive, especially for young children whose brains are rapidly developing. Like anything that we do in life that elicits a positive response or is pleasurable (eating chocolate, being praised or rewarded), we want more and more of it. For example, if you upload photos onto Facebook, you may receive positive feedback from your friends in terms of the number of ‘likes’ or ‘shares’ that you receive. This gives you a little hit of dopamine, the ‘feel-good’ hormone, dopamine. Next time you post an image or interesting status update you will want to check that you receive the same level of feedback. And so your digit addiction can innocently begin. With the iGeneration, when they are playing an app that rewards or praises them, they want to keep playing (“Please, I just need to get to the next level.” Does this sound familiar?). This is precisely why you need to make careful decisions about what content you allow young children to access (they can quickly become attached to some apps that offer rewards or that have lots of bells and whistles).
*Excessive media use, particularly social media, has been associated with increased instances of mental illnesses such as DEPRESSION. I emphasise three words here: excessive AND social media. Technology, per se, does not cause depression as has been reported in popular press at times. In 2013 a University of Michigan study found that the more time a person spend on Facebook, the more their feelings of well-being decrease and feelings of depression increase. Another study by the University of Gothenburg found that the more time people spend on Facebook, the lower their self-esteem. Again, not all millenials are using social media excessively, so this does not necessarily support Senik’s hypothesis that technology is, in part, responsible for the increased rates of ADD/ADHD. It is, however, a timely reminder about the possible negative effects of social media and another reason as to why we should not be in a rush to introduce tweens (or even young children) to social media.
Where Sinek and I Disagree:
*There are no known studies, at this point in time, that prove that technology-use causes ADD/ADHD. None. I’ll repeat that because it is important. We actually do not have any research at this stage that conclusively shows that technology is the reason why we have an increase in ADD/ADHD diagnoses. There are some studies that have shown a correlation between excessive screen-time and ADD/ADHD but they have not proved causation. Does the chicken come before the egg? For example, children with attentional difficulties may be more likely to be drawn to the allure of technology because of its fast-paced, rapid-fire input. This doesn’t mean that technology causes the ADD/ADHD. It simply suggests that there is a correlation between the two factors.
*When used in developmentally-appropriate AND intentional ways, technology can certainly have a positive impact on learning and development. Not only for millenials, but also for the iGeneration. Technology can open up new doors and allow children to do things previously inconceivable. Technology can actually facilitate social (and cognitive) skills. For example, the app Kindoma allows children to simultaneously read a book app with anyone, anywhere in the world in real time and interact with each other via video chat. That is amazing!
*Finally, I don’t think that it is helpful to blame parents. As a parent myself, I know that I would move mountains for my sons. I would do anything to ensure their well-being and health. Most parents are the same. We all want what is best for our children. Pointing the finger is not helpful and is unlikely to rectify the problem. It will simply anger parents.
Rather than demonising technology and fearing it (the iPad is here to stay and smartphones will not be un-invented), we need to look for healthy and appropriate ways to leverage it. We need to teach today’s Millenials (and the iGeneration) how to harness media and digital devices. We need to think of creative and innovative ways to embrace digital technologies. Not ban them.
Tell me what you think in the comments below. Do you agree or disagree with Sinek: are parents AND technology to blame for increased rates of ADD/ADHD? Please, let’s keep this discussion ‘nice’.