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Science or coincidence: Is there a link between more screen time and increased ADHD diagnoses?

boy-playing-video-gameThe use of smart phones, tablet computers and other hand-held devices has increased alongside the sharp rise in the diagnosis of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, or ADHD.

In the past decade, the number of kids diagnosed with ADHD has surged by more than 50 percent. And, in the last six years — when the first generation iPhone was released — that rate has climbed about 15 percent, according to a recent article on the link between gadgets and ADHD.

Coinciding with the jump in ADHD diagnoses is a boost in screen time. The article points to a recent report by the Kaiser Family Foundation that states children’s screen time has spiked 20 percent from just 5 years ago, with kids spending on average nearly 7 ½  hours each day staring at screens.

It begs the question: Are these hand-held gadgets the basis for this sudden rise in ADHD diagnoses?

Pediatric psychiatrist John Bober says no.

Dr. John Bober

Dr. John Bober

“Yes, there’s a temporal correlation, but I think it’s more a coincidence,” he said. “It seems like it’s more speculation as far as the prolonged use of video games causing ADHD.”

In fact, he has found that kids with ADHD are simply attracted to these devices more.

One reason may be that video games reward kids when they rack up points or move to higher levels.

Every time kids “win,” a neurotransmitter called dopamine is released. This chemical helps control the brain’s reward and pleasure centers. And it’s often at the center of ADHD and their love affair with electronics. Medications, like Ritalin, control ADHD by increasing dopamine activity.

“[These games are] very interactive and they are designed to capture your attention,” said Dr. Bober, adding that kids can be successful in these games, whereas they may not always be successful in school.

Though he doesn’t see a cause and effect relationship between the two, he agrees too much screen time can be potentially harmful to a child.

“I think parents do need to monitor this. I mean, obviously, you can’t let your kid play all night long,” said Dr. Bober. “Games are a privilege. It’s a reward for doing things they’re supposed to be doing. So if a kid is a straight-A student, then they probably can be allowed a little bit more reward than a kid who is not doing well.”