Media Spotlight

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Can Media Use Cause ADHD Symptoms in Children?

Exploring the link between media exposure in children and ADHD symptoms

Can there be a link between the rising rate of ADHD diagnoses in children and adolescents and the proliferation in fast-paced media aimed at children?   Attention-Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder is characterized by symptoms such as attention problems, hyperactive behaviour, and impulsivity in children, usually leading to disruptions at both home and school.  While children in developed nations are routinely stimulated by television shows, movies, and video games, research studies investigating a potential link with ADHD symptoms fail to show a consistent relationship. 

Despite clear evidence for a media-ADHD link, various potential explanations have been put forward to explain why media could have this kind of effect on children.  In addition to the violent content often found in media aimed at children and adolescents, critics have also pointed out that entertainment media has become increasingly fast-paced.  With frequent cuts between scenes, abrupt editing, and fast movements, television shows and movies seem to focus more on action than actual plot development.  Another suggestion is that the number of hours spent watching television and movies, as well as playing video games, can be affecting attention span in children.  

Among the different hypotheses that have been suggested is what has been called the scan-and-shift hypothesis.   This argues that fast-paced media, with frequent cuts and edits, may encourage rapid scanning in children and result in a shortened attention span.  Along with concerns about violence in media and the difficulties young children have distinguishing fact from fiction, the potential impact of children being subjected to media influences for many hours each week needs to be carefully examined.

In a new article published in Developmental Psychology, a team of researchers at the University of Amsterdam and Ohio State University carried out a meta-analysis aimed at exploring the link between media exposure in children and ADHD symptoms. Combining the research results from 50 studies, Sanne Nikkelen of the University of Amsterdam, along with his co-researchers, examined media use in children under the age of eighteen in terms of type of media (video games, television, movies), media content, age and gender of children involved, and potential outcome (including ADHD diagnosis, impulsivity, or hyperactivity).  

While all of the studies involved children under the age of eighteen, there was still a broad range extending from early childhood to late adolescence.  All of the studies combined included more than 155,000 children though the proportion of males and females varied. Still, the researchers were able to find a significant correlation between media use and measures of ADHD, including attention problems, hyperactivity, and impulsivity. Though there were significant sex differences (the correlation between media and ADHD symptoms was lower for girls), other factors such as age, media content, and media type were not significant. Violent media did not appear to have a stronger impact than overall media use. There was also no real difference between television viewing or video game-playing in terms of whether it had an effect on attention span.

Though Nikkelen and his co-researchers attempted to look at age differences (whether younger children were more vulnerable to media effects than other children), few of the studies they examined compared older and younger children in their results. They also noted problems in how ADHD symptoms were measured in the various studies. That meant that it was not possible to see whether violent media influenced specific ADHD symptoms such as impulsivity.  

Despite the limitations in their research, Nikkelen and his colleagues showed that there was a positive relationship between overall media exposure and ADHD-related symptoms and behaviours.  At this time however, there is not enough information to say whether there is a clear causal relationship at work (does media exposure cause ADHD or not?)  There are also significant gaps in terms of understanding why this media-ADHD link exists,  as well as whether violent, fast-paced media can effect specific ADHD symptoms such as attention span, impulsivity, and hyperactivity.  

Still, this meta-analysis does show the need for more research exploring how media exposure affects children at different ages.Though it is too soon to make strong conclusions, learning more about the media-ADHD link could have far-reaching implications for the future. Whether or not the rise in children diagnosed with ADHD can be associated with the growing popularity of different media activities, including television watching and video games, paying closer attention to how much time your child spends online or before a monitor may well be the key to a healthier life for them.

Romeo Vitelli, Ph.D. is a psychologist in private practice in Toronto, Canada.

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