This two-year study examined the effect of digital media use on ADHD symptoms in over 2500 adolescents. An earlier meta-analysis found that traditional media use (TV and video console games) was modestly associated with ADHD-like behaviors (Nikkelen et al 2014). The current study extends the examination to a large sample, with modern digital media delivery of high-intensity stimuli, including mobile platforms. The authors used the Current Symptom Self-Report Scale (Barkley R 1998) to establish ADHD symptoms at baseline and at six-month assessments over a 24 month period. None of the subjects reported having ADHD at study entry. Subjects were considered to be ADHD symptom positive (the primary binary outcome) is they had greater than or equal to six inattentive and/or hyperactive-impulsive symptoms rated on this frequency-based scale (0-3).
Modern digital media use was surveyed on a frequency basis for 14 media activities (including checking social media sites, texting, browsing, downloading or streaming music, posting pictures, online chatting, playing games, online shopping, and video chatting). The most common media activity was high-frequency checking of social media. Of note, high-frequency engagement in each of the digital media activities was significantly, but moderately, associated with having ADHD symptoms at each six-month follow-up (OR 1.10), even after adjusting for covariates.
High-frequency media use at baseline seemed to be associated with development of ADHD symptoms. Among the 495 students who reported no high-frequency media use at baseline, 4.6% met ADHD symptom criteria at follow-up. Among 114 students scoring 7 for high-frequency media use at baseline 9.5% met the symptoms criteria. For the 51 students with a score of 14 for high-frequency media use at baseline, the rate was 10.5% (both comparisons were statistically significant).
This study is important in that it notes that an association between high-frequency digital media use (in current platforms and modalities) may be associated with the development of ADHD-like symptoms. A significant limitation of the study, as noted by the authors, is that ADHD-like symptoms do not establish a diagnosis of ADHD and do not assess impairment; therefore, these results must be interpreted with some caution. It does highlight that even with the current level of understanding it might be prudent for clinicians to recommend limiting high-frequency media use for adolescent patients.
Barkley RA. Attention-Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder: A Clinical Workbook. 2nd ed. New York, NY: Guilford Press; 1998.
Nikkelen SW, Valkenburg PM, Huizinga M, Bushman BJ. Media use and ADHD-related behaviors in children and adolescents: a meta-analysis. Dev Psychol. 2014;50(9):2228-2241. doi:10.1037/a0037318
Ra CK, Junhan Cho J, Stone MD, De La Cerda J, Goldenson NI, Moroney E, Tung I, Lee SS, Leventhal AM. Association of Digital Media Use With Subsequent Symptoms of Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder Among Adolescents JAMA. 2018;320(3):255-263. doi:10.1001/jama.2018.8931
About the author
Lenard A. Adler, MD is Professor, Department of Psychiatry and Department of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry at NYU Grossman School of Medicine. He is also the Vice Chair for Education, Department of Psychiatry, and Director of the Adult ADHD Program. He is on the Program Committee of ADHD in Adults. His research examines ways to evaluate and treat people who have ADHD, such as by using new assessment tools, medications, and psychotherapies.