Resources and discussion for parents, teachers and young people navigating the evolving landscape of the digital world.

Friday, November 11, 2016

Screens and ADD/ADHD

Last night, we were graciously invited by the Sherman Elementary PTSA to moderate a Q&A session after their sponsored screening of the Screenagers documentary for their school community, other Tacoma Public Schools, and the South Sound community at large. What a great night! The number of children in the audience was incredible, and the kids asked some really thoughtful questions about the impact of video games on their time and their bodies, what happens to their brains (and sometimes their tummies) when they sit for too long consuming media, and shared their own experiences and sometimes even asked for a bit of guidance with questions that started with, "Is it okay to...?"

"Screen Time Togetherness" by ExpectGrain
is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0
We got one question in particular that stood out to me, and it came from a child inquiring whether or not there were good or bad differences for kids with ADD/ADHD when it comes to screen time. Such a thoughtful question! Believe it or not, when we first started working to host the film at our own school last spring, we did so with the support and guidance of our local Pierce County chapter of CHADD (Children and Adults with Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder).  At that time, I published this article on the Charles Wright website. I share it here again, as it provides information and helpful links.

The intersection of technology and attention disorders is quite complicated, especially if you have read recent headlines like Is the Internet Giving Us All ADHD? (Washington Post, March 2015) juxtaposed with other offerings claiming Technology Makes ADHD Better, Not Worse(Forbes, June 2015). How are we to make sense of all this? In our current digital age, we use technology to learn, communicate, organize, create, and be entertained. Our growing use of, and dependence on, these devices has teachers, researchers, and doctors asking questions about the impact of all this connectedness not only on our ability to focus and pay attention to tasks, but on our health and well-being in general. Within the last year, the phrase adult onset ADHD has actually become a thing (even though it’s NOT really a thing), as we all struggle to understand why we are so easily drawn to, and distracted by, our smart phones. Think “SQUIRREL!” from the movie “Up.”

Well, to link the distracting nature of technology directly to ADHD is a bit disingenuous. As author Caitlin Dewey points out in her piece for the Post, “The Web certainly may cause ADHD-like symptoms, and it could exacerbate the disorder in children and adults who suffer from it already … but there’s no evidence that Internet use could actually cause an otherwise healthy person to develop the disorder. After all, ADHD is believed to have a range of underlying genetic causes, things you couldn’t just ‘catch’ from a computer screen.” What many are actually alluding to when they discuss such distractibility is not ADHD, but multitasking, which years of brain research now shows to be an impossibility. No matter how good we think we are at multitasking, what we are actually doing is task-switching. Perhaps we don’t notice because we do it so rapidly, but each and every time our brain has to make the switch between tasks, however small, it takes a toll on our productivity. We are drawn to the beep, buzz, alert, or notification that forces the change in focus, and we lose track of where we are because we haven't actually seen a single task through to the end. Hence we can feel like we are doing a lot of things but accomplishing nothing at the same time. Sound familiar?

As for the realities of ADHD and technology, parents are often baffled that their child can’t sit still long enough to read a book or complete a project, but put them in front a videogame and they can play for hours. There are multiple factors at work here. Dr. Dimitri Christakis, professor of pediatrics at the University of Washington and the director of the Center for Child Health, Behavior and Development at Children's Hospital in Seattle, urges us to think about ADHD differently than we currently do, not in terms of who can and cannot pay attention, but as a spectrum of “attentional capacity.” All of us exist somewhere on this continuum, and finding out what works for each of us is critical. The ADHD brain works differently. As Dr. Dale Archer puts it, “The chaotic effect of competing sources of information that can distract and derail others is like manna to an ADHDer, for whom these extreme states actually boost a feel-good response in the brain. It’s why many with ADHD appear so focused and functional in the middle of a maelstrom.” That super-focused videogame player? The stimuli of the game, and the rapid nature of your choices leading to immediate rewards, is exactly what an ADHD brain craves, he says. So in this case, the child’s attentional capacity for the game is greater than it might be for other activities that do not offer similar rewards. Who wouldn’t choose the game in those circumstances?

There is still cause for concern, however, in that too much time/attention devoted to a certain task can be a problem. Discussing the common misconception that people with ADHD simply cannot pay attention, Dr. Ned Hallowell, one of the country’s leading experts on ADHD, puts it this way: “People with ADHD can super-focus at times and pay better attention than anyone. When what they are doing interests them they often go into a state of hyper-focus, such that they lose track of the passage of time or their biological needs and drives. It is when they are not interested that their minds wander. But their minds do not go empty, which is why attention deficit is such a misnomer. In ADHD attention wanders, but it never disappears.”

So how does a family manage their use of technology and screen time, whether ADHD is present in the home or not? For all of us to maximize our attentional capacity, we need to critically look at how we are spending our time and seek the right balance. For the parent who feels like Snapchat and Instagram have “stolen” their child from them, this means some pretty critical thinking needs to occur about how, when, and why your child has access to social media. Add adolescence and hormones to the mix and we really have a lot to learn!

That's where we left off last year with an invitation to join us for the film screening. This fall, we invite you to a few things as well, and hope that you will join us as together we explore and learn more about the impact of technology on our brains and learning.

November 16, 2016 - 6:30-7:30pm. The Pierce County CHADD meetings are held monthly at CWA. Next Wednesday guest speaker Dr. Jill C. Kinney, Ph.D., PLLC will be talking about "ADHD and the Family System- Support for Everyone." Keep up with the group on their Facebook page, too!

January 19, 2017 - 6:30-8:00pm at Charles Wright Academy. This is the date for our annual Raising Kids in a Digital World workshop. Please click the link for more information and to RSVP. The event is FREE, open to all, your t(w)eens are invited to come too, and there will be free childcare for very young children.

In the meantime, here are a few more great articles/books that might help you in your journey.

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