This is a partial summary of a presentation by Dr. David Anderson, PhD.  Dr. Anderson is the past Senior Director of the ADHD & Behavior Disorders Center and is currently the Senior Director of National Programs and Outreach at the Child Mind Institute. 

Technology is a wonderful thing and does so much to make our lives easier to handle and allows us to be more productive. Technology is also very seductive; you can lose hours checking social media, catching up instantly on interests, and playing games. 

 However, there is also a dark side to technology; if unfettered, it can get in the way of quality family and social life, homework and study habits, quality of life and health in general.

The latest research on the effects of screen time on ADHD has or is being evaluated and Dr. Anderson helps navigate the information, discussing both the positive and negative findings. 

Overall Statistics prompting the research

  • Between 13% and 20% of children in the U. S, experience a mental disorder in a given year.
  • There was a 33% increase in the number of 8th to 12th graders who had high levels of depressive symptoms from 2010 to 2015.
  • Suicide is the second leading cause of death in people aged 15 – 24.

The research is a bit murky in most cases, but experts believe there may be an explanation for this.  For example, one bit of research shows a direct link to social media and suicide, reporting that teens who spent 5+ hours daily on devices were 66% more likely to have at least one suicide-related outcome.  Another study, however, shows that social media only explain .36% of depressive symptoms. And if the experts doing the research can’t agree, what are parents to do?  Dr. Anderson indicates that even though there are so many variable and unclear causal connections, nevertheless, there are some things we do know for sure.

What we know for sure about screen time use

  • How much they use matters:  Kids who use the most digital media are the most unhappy. However, this has to be tempered with how they are engaging also.  Compare these two scenarios:  Watching tv with family during a family night is a positive experience.  A teen isolated in him/her room alone on social media is different and not necessarily positive. 
    • Small amounts of screens can be positive.  Technology connects us with others.  I don’t think there’s a parent out there that hasn’t said they need to text if they want to hear from their kids. Most families have group texts to stay connected to family.
    • Playing a short game or scrolling through a social media app for a few minutes now and then can actually reduce stress and anxiety, so a positive.
    • Conclusion:  It is not necessarily the screen that is causing issues; it may very well be that the amount of time devoted to screens limits the amount of time available to spend on other activities that need to happen to be a developmentally appropriate individual and have successful relationships.
  • Very young children need to limit screen time as there is research that shows fast paced programming may have a causation factor with ADHD.
    • Conclusion:  It is not because the screens are inherently injurious (with the exception above), but because young children need to engage in certain developmental tasks.  These tasks must occur.  If there is no time available for these tasks (because they are engaging in screen time), that is what is injurious during critical times of development. 
  • What they’re using it for matters:  Kids who use social media passively or only to get likes and follows have the most negative outcomes.  In these cases, the motivation seems to be to boost self-esteem or to pass the time because of boredom.
    • We need to be aware of content, how much time is being spent, and what is your child’s end goal? Scrolling through feeds quickly to keep up with what our friends and acquaintances are doing is positive; posting things to get likes and followers to “boost” feelings of inadequacy is negative. 
    • Conclusion:  The problem may not be the screen but the inability to regulate feelings of self-worth and how to handle life in negative instances such as boredom
  • Other factors might matter more:  Overall media balance in conjunction with proper amounts of sleep, overall general health and other factors play a hug role in mental health. 
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