Neuroscientist Baroness Greenfield was featured on Radio 4′s Today Programme this morning [realaudio] arguing that children are being medicated for ADHD when the problem might be caused by the over-use of ‘electronic media’ leading to short attention spans.
One of the difficulties with this argument is that an attention problem in children with ADHD has yet to be reliably pinned down.
Some researchers are so unimpressed that they argue that ADHD is just a vague label for the outcome in any number of different behavioural and emotional problems.
Therefore, even if ‘electronic media’ did lead to short attention spans, this probably has little to do with ADHD as it is diagnosed in the clinic.
Nevertheless, it is doubtful whether the constant use of ‘electronic media’ does lead to a short attention span. In fact, it probably has the reverse effect.
A study published in Nature in 2003 reported that people who play video games have better visual attention than people who do not.
A 2005 study reported that children diagnosed with ADHD perform no worse than other children on standard computer games, and on a neuropsychological test of attention designed to be more ‘game-like’ to keep children’s interest.
Perhaps the point about ‘electronic media’ has clouded a more important ethical issue that Baroness Greenfield addresses – the widespread medication of children with amphetamines or amphetamine-like drugs to treat behavioural problems.
A hundred years ago ADHD-like behaviour was undoubtedly dealt with by corporal punishment. This raises the question of whether medicalising and medicating this behaviour is just a more expedient, or a genuinely more humane approach to dealing with problematic children.
UPDATE: There’s a short piece in The Guardian about the topic and the subsequent political debate.
realaudio of interview with Baroness Greenfield.