Screen Brain - the connection between electronic devices and ADHD

Recently while idly scrolling through Facebook I came across a Huffington post article that was criticizing a new product for infants. This lovely new product features a fabulous bouncy seat that comes equipped with the standard bright colored toys meant to grab an infant’s attention. In case those toys and all that bouncing isn’t enough to keep your tot entertained, it also features … wait for it … an iPad holder. Don’t worry though … a protective case keeps your iPad dribble free. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/12/03/ipad-bouncy-seat_n_4374308.html

 

My first reaction as a naturopathic physician was OMG seriously!!! Someone thought this was a good idea! Then my nerd brain kicked in and I started wondering more about why this might be a bad idea and what research might supports my gut notion that this is pretty much the most terrible idea ever.

 

I started researching and quickly came across several articles and presentations from clinicians and researchers supporting the idea that we can, in fact, over-stimulate a young child’s brain. In a nutshell, over-stimulation sets kids up for many difficulties later on in life. This may be why the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends no screen time for children under the age of two.

 

In a TEDx presentation Dr. Dimitri Christakis, MD from the University of Washington discusses several studies that investigated the impact of television/screen time on the developing brain. The amount of time a child spends in front of a screen, the pace of scene changes, and the type of content presented can be used to help predict the likelihood that children will have difficulties with attention and learning later on in life. Dr. Christakis found that for every hour per day a child watches TV before the age of three, their chances of having attention problems later in life are increased by 10%. He also notes a study showing that as pace increases in video games and tv shows, children become more at risk for attention problems, and that violent programs could increase this risk by up to 110%. Consequently, cognitive stimulation (e.g. parents reading to a child, going to a museum) reduces the likelihood of attention difficulties later on. Considering that some children now spend up to 40-60% of their waking hours in front of the television or with a screen playing games, is it really a surprise that one in ten children are diagnosed with some degree of ADD/ADHD?

 

What’s interesting with these studies is that they include children both with and without a diagnosis of ADD/ADHD or other known risk factors of the attention difficulties. In children who have been diagnosed with ADD/ADHD, the risk of overstimulation leading to difficulties with attention may actually be even greater. Children with ADD experience a decrease in activity in the prefrontal cortex when they focus on things; meaning the harder they try to focus, the harder it gets to block out incoming stimuli from their environment. This is because the prefrontal cortex is involved with judgment and impulse control and as its activity decreases other parts of the brain can dominate—leading to impulsive actions and activity. The brains of people with ADD want to be stimulated, which is why children with ADD/ADHD can often be found glued to a screen. Not only are their brains stimulated by rapid scene changes, but if they’re playing video games, their brains are also rewarded by dopamine every few minutes as they collect coins, pass levels and conquer enemies. For these children over-stimulation from TV and video games may actually be reinforcing their difficulties with attention instead of teaching them to focus.

 

So, to bring this short discussion back to the elaborate bouncing iPad accessory at hand—this brilliant device might allow parents to enjoy a few moments of peace while their child is younger, but those quiet moments may be the calm before the storm as their child begins developing attention deficit patterns that can last a lifetime..

 

 

If you have any questions about this article - feel free to email Dr. Ashley Sullivan at dr.sullivan@amendaclinic.com