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ADHD Rates in US Kids Have Nearly Doubled to 10 Percent, New Study Reports

Diagnoses of attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder in American children and teens rose from 6 percent to over 10 percent in the last two decades. And researchers are asking if our devices are to blame.

Image by PM Images/ Getty Images

New research published Friday, August 31st, in JAMA Pediatrics, tracked results from the National Health Interview Survey, a nationwide cross-sectional survey conducted annually from 1997 to 2016. Survey data from 186,457 children and adolescents, 4 to 17 years old, were assessed for diagnoses of ADHD. The findings, led by scientists at the University of Iowa and the Shenzhen Children’s Hospital in China, revealed a spike from 6.1 percent to 10.2 percent within these years, begging the question of why children across race and gender lines are increasingly developing attention-deficit symptoms.

The science behind attention-deficit disorders is constantly changing, but with the accumulation of research pointing to a connection between technology use and the human attention span, researchers were prompted to investigate the significant upsurge.

According to the American Psychiatric Association (APA), ADHD is characterized by symptoms like inability to focus, difficulty paying attention, trouble completing tasks and ignoring instructions, as well as fidgety, talkative, or impulsive behavior. Children with ADHD often have difficulty paying attention or performing in school. The recent increase in ADHD is alarming for parents sending kids to school, and once again is prompting conversation about the connection between our addictive technological devices and this rise of prevalence. After all, other recent studies have shown direct connections between time spent in front of screens and our mental health.

However, researchers say the evidence of a connection to technology is not conclusive, and that doctors may simply be diagnosing more children with the condition than they had been in the past. The APA updated the symptoms for ADHD in 2013 to also include inattentiveness, which could have contributed to a spike in diagnoses, especially in girls, who fail to display classic hyperactive symptoms, the study authors note.

The findings suggest additional research is needed to reach a conclusive cause for the rise. “It is important to understand the most recent prevalence of ADHD and its long-term trends over the past decades,” the study authors note. “This continued upward trend in diagnosed ADHD among children and adolescents points to the need to better understand potentially modifiable environmental risk factors.” Some non-technology-related factors the authors cite that could be contributing to the uptick: genetics, environmental contamination, prenatal and perinatal risk factors like preterm birth, attachment-related risk factors in early infancy, and nutritional deficiencies.

Still, with proof that Americans are spending half the day on their devices, other studies have suggested a very real link between that frequent use of digital media and the development of ADHD. In a new study from the University of Michigan, researchers observed 2,587 Los Angeles County high school students without symptoms of ADHD and surveyed the students five times within a two-year span. After twenty-four months, the findings showed that the frequent use of digital media may be associated with the development of ADHD among teens.

Whether the science is certain or not, there’s no question that everyone can benefit from spending a little more time looking up and being present — both children and adults.

If you’re looking for small steps to take with your family to increase focus and disconnect from technology, these three science-backed microsteps developed by Thrive are a great start:

1. Pick a time at night when you turn off your devices—and gently escort them out of your bedroom

Our phones are repositories of everything we need to put away to allow us to sleep — our to-do lists, our inboxes, multiple projects and problems. Disconnecting from the digital world will help you sleep better, deeply recharge and reconnect to your wisdom and creativity.

2. Make unplugging into a game, so no one looks at their phone over dinner

The “phone stacking” game, for instance. During dinner, have everyone put their phones in the middle of the table. Whoever looks at their device first picks up the check (or does the dishes).

3. Take the Unplugging Challenge

Set aside time to step away from social media and email so you can truly connect with your loved ones and with yourself. You may experience some phantom phone vibrations, but you’ll emerge more conscious of the importance of living in the moment. 

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