Social media is often considered a distraction, but based on the results of a recent study, that influence could have larger implications. According to research published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA), frequent use of digital media, including social media, by adolescents could be associated with ADHD—though the causal direction of that relationship is undetermined. 

As is always the case with a new study like this, season both the original authors’ statements and my summary with plenty of salt, but the results are compelling. At least, enough to encourage further research. Also, the full text of the study is unfortunately hidden behind one of those science and information-destroying paywalls, which is a major drag, so all we have to go on is the report’s abstract.

The study took place over two years, with 3,051 students aged 15-16 (at the time the study began) participating in the survey, presumably dwindling slightly over the next few years. Those students self-reported both their respective digital/social media use across 14 media activities together with self-rated frequency for a variety of ADHD symptoms—with students reporting 6 or more out of the 18 potential symptoms in the study classified as being “ADHD symptom-positive.”

Results compared both a baseline survey at the time the study began with follow-up surveys roughly every 6 months over a two year period. Higher frequencies of media and social media use were correlated with higher odds of having symptoms of ADHD over that time. Students with lower media use (495 students with no high-frequency activities) had a 4.6% mean rate of being “ADHD symptom-positive,” while high media use (114 students reporting 7 high-frequency activities) were 9.5% symptom-positive. The highest-reporting group, with 14 high-frequency media activities, was above even that at a 10.5% symptom-positive rate, though it was also the smallest group at a mere 51 students.

It’s easy to take these numbers and run with them (like last year’s study about cognitive ability and phones), assuming the use of digital media is bad for kids and causes ADHD, but both the smaller sample sizes for some of the reporting groups and the lack of a causal relationship should be taken into consideration. Although the difference is statistically significant between 4.5% and 9.5%+, media use could just as easily be an effect of ADHD rather than the cause. The methodology of the study, which relies on the honesty and accuracy of self-reported data from an age group not typically known for either, could also have had an impact on the results.

Parents shouldn’t necessarily assume all that time spent on Instagram or Facebook will give their kids ADHD, but maybe it’s worth asking about other parts of their children’s lives if they notice it’s starting to become a problem.

(Photo by Elijah O’Donell on Unsplash)

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