Anyone who has spent any time around teens, and seen the way they often seem surgically attached to their phones, has likely wondered: is all that time on the phone affecting their brains?

A study in JAMA suggests that maybe it is.

Researchers from California studied the digital media use of more than 2,500 high school students who did not have symptoms of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) at the beginning of the study. The most common symptoms of ADHD include inattentiveness (being easily distracted, having difficulty getting organized or remembering to do things), hyperactivity (having difficulty sitting still), and impulsivity (making decisions without thinking through the possible consequences).

The researchers asked the students how often they engaged in 14 different digital media activities, on a scale from “never” to “many times a day.” These activities included

  • checking social media
  • texting
  • browsing or viewing images or videos online
  • streaming or downloading music
  • liking or commenting on other people’s posts
  • chatting online
  • streaming TV or movies
  • playing games alone
  • playing games with others
  • posting on social media
  • sharing others’ posts
  • reading online blogs or articles
  • online shopping/browsing
  • video chatting.

They checked in with the teenagers at regular intervals over two years, both about their digital media use and also looking for symptoms of ADHD. They found that 4.6% of teens who didn’t report any high-frequency use of digital media had symptoms of ADHD at the end of the study — but that number jumped to 9.5% of those who reported seven high-frequency activities, and 10.5% for those who reported frequent activity in all 14. Overall, frequent digital media use appeared to increase the risk of having symptoms of ADHD by about 10%. The risk was higher for boys than girls, and for teens who had depression or a previous history of getting into trouble.

To some extent, this is understandable. Compared to more “traditional” media such as watching TV in your living room, digital media has a faster pace and is more stimulating, making it more likely that teens will get, well, sucked in. Also, adolescence is a time when teens develop social identity, and are looking for social connection — and if there were ever a place for social connection, it’s social media.

It’s certainly possible that digital media brought out ADHD symptoms in teens that hadn’t previously been diagnosed — or that the genetic or environmental factors (including parenting) that lead to high-frequency digital media use are some of the same ones that lead to ADHD. It’s also true that the effect was small, and that having symptoms of ADHD doesn’t mean one has ADHD.

But it’s still a study we shouldn’t ignore, because ADHD can have real negative effects on a teenager. It can lead to poor school performance, which can have lifelong consequences. It can make a teen more likely to do risky, dumb things (which they are already more likely to do just because they’re teens, so making it worse isn’t good). It can lead to substance abuse and legal problems, which we certainly don’t want to see happen. Even a small increase in the chance of any of this is bad.

And this is on top of concerns for device addiction, and concerns that cell phones interfere with learning to read social cues… maybe, just maybe, it’s time to get kids to put their phones down.

We can do it. I know we can. It will mean putting our phones down too, of course. But even just simple steps, like screen-free dinners and other screen-free activities, can make a difference — as can charging phones somewhere central away from the bedroom.

There’s a whole wondrous world out there, and our children need to interact with it in other ways besides with their phones.


This article was originally posted on Harvard Health Publishing

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