Excessive screen use and ADHD. What’s the link?
Updated: Mar 1
What distinguishes an ADHD brain?
· Why are ADHD brains drawn to screens?
· Does excessive screen-use cause ADHD?
· What are the risks?
· What can be done to minimise these risks?
What distinguishes an ADHD brain?
When an ADHD brain is compared in structure and function to a neuro-typical brain, there are distinct differences seen on MRI (structural imaging) and fMRI (functional imaging, in real time) scans. For many reasons, ADHD brains are subject to a delay in the maturation of the brain function and connectivity of networks that are important for mature adult behaviour, known as executive functions. These functions assess situations and play an important role in the ability to self-control, sustain attention, switch tasks, estimate timing, plan ahead and think ahead, as well as controlling emotions and motivation. In the ADHD brain, these functions are compromised. Scans also show that, relative to neurotypical brains, the ADHD brain has lower levels of dopamine and norepinephrine (‘brain messenger’) receptors and transporters in the accumbens and midbrain — two key regions of the brain directly involved in processing motivation and reward. A distinct feature of the ADHD brain is that the thalamus, the area in the brain responsible for response inhibition (thinking before acting), is compromised. The internal signalling speed is sufficiently delayed as to allow inappropriate behaviour seen as impulsivity.
Why are ADHD brains, in particular, drawn to screens?
Lower levels of dopamine and norepinephrine make it more difficult to find and maintain sufficient stimulation and so to avoid the almost excruciating experience of boredom they constantly seek the dopamine ‘hit’ they crave. This is a crucial quest and it overshadows other important aspects of life, such as established goals and the passage of time. Add to this the slower inhibition response and it becomes obvious that screens, and the instant access to a ‘buzz’, are perfect stimulants.
However, finding the correct balance of stimulation is a very tricky job and in many cases a person with ADHD will attempt to quieten down an over-stimulating environment. This is where a quiet, undemanding moving graphic or a familiar, comfortable film is the perfect antidote. A screen can be wonderful, too, when a simple text message can save that person having to go through the potentially overwhelming planning process required to make a voice call.
Does excessive screen-use cause ADHD?
A recent study (Tamana et al., 2019) has prompted considerable media attention over links between screen time and the potential development of ADHD. It found that there was a strong link between excessive screen time (over two hours per day) in three to five year-olds and attentional problems. However, it did not show a causal link to ADHD, and no studies will be conducted in the future to study such a link as they would be unethical.
What are the risks ADHD adults run while using screens excessively?
ADHD brains are often prone to poor time-awareness and management. Being distracted by the temptation to reach for a screen, and stay engaged, there is a risk that health, important relationships, and goals might suffer. The heightened risk of obsessive behaviour seen in ADHD people may lead to potentially damaging conditions, for example Internet Gaming Disorder and gambling addiction. Self-esteem and work relations are likely to suffer as a result of ‘careless’ work. If screens are used late in the evening, this will also compromise sleep quality, which is vital for a well cared-for ADHD brain.
What can be done to minimise these risks?
It is important for anyone with ADHD characteristics firstly to be aware of the risks screens can pose. If the urge to act impulsively can be curbed by means beyond willpower, for example by using a workable routine, timers, apps and working offline, these strategies will all be helpful. This link is to a helpful article about some useful apps:
It might be helpful, too, to consider having a word with your GP if you think you or someone you love may have ADHD. Many supportive treatments beyond medication are available, but the reason stimulant medication is so successful is that it enhances the levels of dopamine and noradrenaline in the brain and thus mitigates the desire for outside stimulation. Coaching is proving increasingly effective, of course!
Published Winter 2019
Enormous thanks go to https://www.additudemag.com,
Dr Litten for her article ‘What the ADHD Brain wants’
Laurie Dupar at iACT