A recent report from the Kaiser Family Foundation states that children spend an average of seven and a half hours each day staring at a screen, whether it’s a television, a computer or some other electronic gadget. That’s up 20 percent from just five years ago.
Meanwhile, over the past decade the number of children diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder has surged by over 50 percent. And in the last six years that rate has jumped about 15 percent, to 6 million children, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
While it’s hard to prove a direct correlation between these two trends, experts say the strong parallels between the upswing in diagnoses and an increase of screen time are hard to ignore.
As children play with electronic gadgets their minds process information differently because their brains are working harder to absorb the barrage of information and sensations. That increased brain activity makes it harder to focus on one task and control impulses -- hallmark signs of hyperactivity, according to a recent article from Mobiledia, a website on technology culture and trends.
Citing Christopher Lucas, associate professor of child psychiatry at New York University School of Medicine, Mobiledia notes that kids focus on video games and television in a different way than the attention they’ll use to thrive in school and life.
"It’s not sustained attention in the absence of rewards," Lucas said. "It’s sustained attention with frequent intermittent rewards."
When kids play games and rack up points, move to higher levels and unlock characters and goodies, their brains are rewarded by dopamine, a neurotransmitter that’s released each time they "win." Furthermore, kids with ADHD are usually ridiculed and ostracized by peers, and that isolation sends them back to those gadgets, since they’re likely the only consistent companion. The result? They often develop an emotional dependency that extends beyond dopamine.
Children and young adults who overdo TV and video games are nearly twice as likely to suffer from a variety of attention span disorders, according to a study in the journal Pediatrics cited by Mobiledia.
"ADHD is 10 times more common today than it was 20 years ago," said Dimitri Christakis, the George Adkins Professor of Pediatrics at the University of Washington in Seattle. "Although it is clear that ADHD has a genetic basis, given that our genes have not changed appreciably in that timeframe, it is likely that there are environmental factors that are contributing to this rise."
Part of the problem is the fragmented, fast-paced nature of electronic media. Christakis found that the faster-paced shows increased the risk of attention issues. The brains of children adapt to that speedy pace, and when they’re forced to work in the slower pace of life, they struggle to pay attention because it isn’t as stimulating or rewarding.
Some experts think the growing attachment to our gadgets is part of the solution. "Maybe the kids’ focus on games could be used to draw them out as a way of developing social skills," said Stephen Shore, author of "Beyond the Wall: Personal Experiences with Autism and Asperger Syndrome" and a professor of special education at Adelphi University.
Rather than look at the issue as a problem, Shore believes we need to view it as a challenge. "These games are compelling to the kids, and instead of battling to eliminate them, we could use them to actually develop social skills."
He may have a point. After all, not only are electronic devices here to stay, but they’re likely to become even more prevalent in our daily lives as technology advances further. Consider this: 20 years ago only the privileged few had cell phones, and at the time those technological wonders were bulky and could only be used for (gasp) making phone calls.
Now we have smartphones that allow you to take pictures and download them directly to the Internet, plus iPads, tablets and so many other gadgets that adults and kids alike have a hard time staying unplugged and disconnected for any length of time. We need to accept that this is the way of the future and we need to learn to live with and adapt to this technology reality.
Then again, there’s something to be said for leaving the gadgets behind every so often, even if just for a little while, so we can slow down a bit, reconnect with friends and family on a more personal level, and rediscover the wonders of our own brain power. Both kids and adults alike would benefit from that downtime.