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A US study has revealed a link between texting, video chatting and using social media sites and symptoms of attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) – as if there weren’t already enough reasons to get your kids off their digital devices!

Researchers from the University of Southern California Keck School of Medicine observed thousands of teens and used self-report systems to determine that frequent use of digital media may be associated with the development of ADHD symptoms in adolescents – however, more research is needed to know about the nature of the association.

In the observational study, 2,587 Los Angeles County high school students – who did not have symptoms of ADHD at study entry – were surveyed five times from September 2014 to December 2016. They self-reported the use of 14 different digital media activities, such as checking social media sites and texting, and self-rated the frequency of 18 ADHD symptoms in the six months preceding the survey. It was found that frequently using multiple forms of digital media was associated with a higher likelihood of ADHD symptoms occurring over a 24-month period.

“Symptoms of ADHD involve inattentive, hyperactive and impulsive behaviours, and exist on a spectrum, with some individuals experiencing extremely heightened levels, such as those with ADHD, and others experiencing lower levels,” says Dr Hannah Kirk, a NHMRC Early Career Research Fellow at the Monash Institute of Cognitive and Clinical Neurosciences. “These levels may fluctuate due to a number of factors such as age or the environment. This large-scale study indicates that one specific environmental factor (digital media) may increase the level of these behaviours.”

While it must be made clear that the self-rated survey was not sufficient to determine an actual ADHD diagnosis, there was a statistically significant – albeit modest – association between a higher frequency of digital media use and subsequent ADHD symptoms, within the adolescents observed over a two year period.

“Although this study highlights an association between digital media and behavioural symptoms typically associated with ADHD, it is important to note that ADHD has a strong genetic origin, is associated with distinct brain development and emerges in childhood,” Dr Kirk explains. “Therefore, an increase in symptoms of ADHD in adolescents does not equate to the development of a clinical attention disorder. Greater research is required to establish the potential long-term negative and positive impacts that digital media has on the way we think and behave.”

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