Toggling from app to app throughout the day is taking a toll on all Americans' perpetually multi-tasking brains. Now, researchers say that too much screen time for teens leads to attention difficulties and impulse-control problems.
Female typing on smartphone
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It stands to reason that technology is affecting just about everyone's ability to focus these days. Sure, we might call it multi-tasking, or simply what constitutes productivity in 2018, but constantly shifting focus from one app to the other is clearly bad news for our attention spans. Now, researchers are pointing out just how detrimental the habit may be to developing brains, specifically those of teens. A new study published in the journal JAMA last week concluded that "among adolescents followed up over 2 years, there was a statistically significant but modest association between higher frequency of digital media use and subsequent symptoms of ADHD."  

Researchers from USC, UCLA, and UC San Diego observed 2,500 Los Angeles-area high school students who showed no evidence of attention challenges at the outset of the study. They concluded that the teens whose digital media use was highest reported a rising number of symptoms linked to attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder.

The association was modest, but it was still notable: The Los Angeles Times explains that "for every notch a teen climbed up the scale of digital engagement, his or her average level of reported ADHD symptoms rose by about 10%." 

Researchers said their findings don't necessarily show that digital media use leads to ADHD symptoms, let alone a diagnosis. On the contrary, it's possible that adolescents' attention difficulties drive how much they're using their devices. Still, the constant stimulation of today's technology may be exacerbating some kids' ADHD symptoms.  

"Both a lack of impulse control and lack of patience can stem from the overuse of technology," explains Marygrace Sexton, founder of A-GAP, a non-profit foundation that helps people free themselves from technology. "The very nature of the way our devices provide us with immediate information, instant gratification and hyper-focus, are the triggers that promote these types of disorders, especially in teens with inherent ADHD behaviors." 

Heather Senior Monroe, LCSW, Director of Program Development at Newport Academy, who wasn't involved in the study, explains the correlation: "Impulsivity is one of the primary symptoms of ADHD, and impulse control is managed by the brain’s frontal cortex. Brain-imaging research has shown that screen time, such as video games and social media, affect the frontal cortex in the same way that cocaine does, catalyzing compulsive and erratic behaviors. Screen time also negatively affects connectivity in the brain. In addition, research has found that screen time activates the reward center of the brain—releasing dopamine, which primes the brain for addiction and addictive behaviors. All of these brain changes could manifest as symptomology that fits an ADHD diagnosis."

That said, this research serves as a reminder for parents to not only be aware of the link but to set clear boundaries, Monroe notes. "Parents need to enforce these boundaries with appropriate consequences," she tells "It’s also essential for adults to model healthy habits around technology: It’s not okay for us to be on our phones during meals or family time, or to yell at the kids to get off the computer while we’re staring at our laptops. Designate regular unplugged times for everyone during the day, and certain areas of the house where screens are off limits. Plan technology-free family activities, get out in nature with the kids, and consider getting them started with a simple meditation or breathing practice to help them learn how to self-regulate."

At the same time, she encourages parents to tune in to the underlying issues that might be driving the overuse of technology. "A child or teen who is feeling depressed or anxious might be using screen time as a way to numb or distract from the discomfort or pain they’re feeling," she says. "Parents should never be afraid to reach out to a mental health expert for assessment and advice."