Electronic media causing ADHD?

susan_greenfield.jpgNeuroscientist 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.

Current theories tend to emphasise more general processes like behavioural inhibition, inhibitory control and executive dysfunction.

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.

At a recent conference preliminary data was presented from a study that suggested ADHD could be helped by getting affected children to play Dance Dance Revolution!

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.

7 thoughts on “Electronic media causing ADHD?”

  1. I’ve just finished Aric Sigman’s “Remotely Controlled” which might as well be subtitled ‘Why television is responsible for everything i disapprove of’. He makes the same claim – that television/computers etc are responsible for ADHD (and depression, obesity, violent crime, cultural homogenisation, lowered libido, the sexualisation of childhood, etc, etc, etc). Anyway, Vaughan, I don’t find the evidence presented convincing. However, things aren’t entirely clear-cut.
    The word ‘attention’ covers a variety of faculties. Now, sure, computer games can improve some aspects of attention (the 2003 Nature paper is discussed in Hack #43 in the book, by the way!) but this doesn’t mean than others kinds, perhaps something closer to what we call ‘concentration’ isn’t being harmed. Are engaging TV or PC based paradigms likely to gauge the kind of loss of attentional control that has been suggested to underly ADHD? I’m sure. Although i’m loath to agree with such seeming knee-jerk ludditism, I’d need to see better evidence before I rule out there being a link between TV and at least some kind of effect on our attentional systems.

  2. It’s probably worth making the distinction between passive electronic media like TV and active media like computers.
    There’s some evidence (with the normal caveats) that hours spent watching TV correlates with, or is causally linked to reduced attention in children. e.g:
    As far as I know, there’s been no evidence been found for a similar link with computers or gaming.

  3. The TV / ADHD debate keeps swinging from one side to the other. The latest study [ http://www.myomancy.com/2006/03/tv_not_a_cause_.html ] found no link between ADHD and TV watching.
    However TV has been linked to poor sleep patterns [ http://www.myomancy.com/2005/10/sleep_and_telev.html ] and sleep problems have been linked to ADHD [http://www.myomancy.com/2005/07/snoring_sleep_a.html ].
    Finally, simulations of primitive groups suggests that unpredictable, impulsive behaviour (e.g. ADHD) is benifical to the group as a whole. Adding weight to the argument that ADHD is just part of our make up and not created by modern society [ http://www.myomancy.com/2005/12/was_adhd_create.html ].

  4. Oh, the ADHD ‘problem’ is the TV now?
    TV has been around for many many years – why is it now that ~7% of all children are diagnosed as suffering from ADHD?
    Last time I watched TV, the shows required attention for 10 to 15 minute blocks. ADHD attention spans are counted in seconds… But wait – we can medicate the children to change them from normal childhood behaviour into blindly obedient automatons, so they can sit in front of the TV for hours without disturbing the adults…
    ((Yep, you mentioned the war. No you didn’t get away with it…))

  5. It has long been claimed that television, along with a lack of a loving and secure environment, and poor nutrition, all cause ADHD in young children, but I have not seen this first hand, although I had a lot of time to observe ADHD teenagers during the two years while I worked at a drug rehab treatment facility. Actually deciding ADHD is directly linked to television is ridiculous because of the extent of factors involved. With no direct link from ADHD and television, it’s hard to say anything is really wrong with letting a child watch educational programming. It’s also hard to say that there’s anything innately harmful that will stem from watching children watch, say, violent cartoons, or other non-educational children’s shows. When dealing with raising a child, the effects of school, TV, and friends all tend to loop back to parenting.

  6. Read what brain scientists all but come right out and say re ADHD/ADD in The Brain That Changes Itself, by Dr. Norman Doidge, on page: pp 306-310. The media doesn’t CAUSE the predilection…or does it??? As far as we know, ADHD/ADD did not exist prior to the advent of communications [TV], and has only EXPLODED in the past 20 years, especially with the massive popularity of gaming [video, PC, etc].
    I love the blog, btw!! 😀

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