Does screen time increase chances of ADHD?

By Dr Brendan Belsham

Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) affects around 6% of school-going children and, in the majority of cases, persists into adulthood. It’s well-recognised that ADHD diagnosis has increased in recent years. For example, 2013 data from the Centre for Disease Control revealed 11% of children between the ages of 4 and 17 had been diagnosed with ADHD compared to 5% in the early 1990s.

Parallel to this increase in diagnosis is an increase in the prescription rates for ADHD medication; in the UK, the number of scripts for such medications increased by 800% between 1995 and 2015.

Causes for this increase might include better recognition of the condition and misdiagnosis of other conditions which might present with inattentiveness. But a fundamental shift in society also means young children are spending more time on electronic devices such as television, tablets and smart phones.

Several studies show a link between excessive exposure to electronic screens and attention problems in middle childhood. In one study (Christakis et al) higher rates of television exposure between the ages of one and three correlated with concentration problems later, at age seven. It’s suggested that fast-paced screen content (cartoons, gaming) moulds the brain to expect high levels of stimulation and impairs concentration for regular classroom activity.

There are many factors at play. ‘Disrupted early attachment’ has been linked with ADHD in several studies. Younger children might be using tablets and other devices more and more as parents themselves become obsessed with their own devices – which in turn can impact attachment.

Studies also suggest a link between ADHD and obesity and between excessive screen use and obesity. Children who have a television in their room are more likely than their peers to be obese. These three factors – ADHD, obesity and screen time – might be intricately linked.

Here are some practical guidelines for parents to reduce screen time:

  1. Lead by example

This is especially important for parents who may have ADHD themselves and are prone to becoming addicted to their own online activities. Don’t expect your young child to reduce their own screen time if your eyes are constantly glued to your phone or tablet. Healthy family habits begin with parents. Better still if they’re established early on.

  1. No screens in the mornings

Fast-paced screen content is an inappropriate way to begin a school day. Parents should set the tone and ensure the home is free of electronic distractions at this time of the day.

  1. No screens at the dinner table

Children with ADHD often struggle to adjust socially. Sharing a meal together at least once a day is one way to nurture relationships and communication. This includes non-verbal skills such as body language, facial expression and eye contact. Put a lock-down on screens on the dinner table and make it a set rule.

  1. No screens in bedrooms

Apart from the risk of inappropriate content (such as pornography and cyber-bullying) devices in bedrooms are associated with poorer sleep – which can already be a challenge in children with ADHD. This is because the light emanating from tablets and smart phones gives off a ‘blue light’, which interferes with natural melatonin physiology.

  1. Use screen time as an incentive

Provide positive reinforcement for your family when they complete mundane tasks such as homework and daily chores, and then offer screen time as a reward. This way, it’s seen as a luxury and not an expectation.

Electronic devices are part of our lives and will undoubtedly be part of our children’s futures. It’s critical for professionals and parents to provide guidance for children. Especially those with ADHD who are more vulnerable to the deleterious effects, and to model a healthy balance between embracing the benefits of the digital age and avoiding its risks.