You check Twitter. You go on WhatsApp. You stalk people on Instagram. And then, you kind of completely forget what you were doing before you picked up your phone. Ever had that experience? Where you wake up from a social media haze and find yourself unable to focus on your work, or even a conversation you were having with a friend IRL? Well, same, and this is apparently becoming much more common. The time many of us spend using social media may cause ADHD symptoms in the long-term, according to a new study, meaning your screen time affects your ability to focus and be present even more than you realize.
Personally, I don't exactly find this information surprising, but that doesn't make it any less unsettling. The thing is, social media doesn't seem like it's going anywhere anytime soon, which means that most people's lives are going to include a lot of screen time for the foreseeable future — in which case, it's extremely important to be aware of how social media actually affects your brain, and more specifically, your ability to focus.
The new study appears to show that the almost-constant use of social media can seriously increase your risk for developing symptoms of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).
In case you're not totally sure what ADHD really is, the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) defines it as a condition "marked by an ongoing pattern of inattention and/or hyperactivity-impulsivity that interferes with functioning or development." Symptoms of ADHD, per NIMH, include difficulty staying on-task, fidgeting, tapping, and other similar, constant, repetitive actions, as well as impulsive behaviors, like interrupting people when they're speaking, or making important decisions "without considering the long-term consequences."
Adam Leventhal, a psychologist and co-author of this new study, which has been published in the journal JAMA, told NPR that his team's research is "one of the first studies to look at modern digital media and ADHD risk." He later added that spending a lot of time on social media "doesn't seem to be great for [people's] mental health." Shocker, right?
So here's how the actual study went down: Over a period of two years, the researchers looked at more than 2,500 10th graders attending various schools in Los Angeles County. At the start of the study, none of the teens showed symptoms of ADHD, but by the end of the two years, teens who reported more frequent, daily use of digital media were, apparently, a heck of a lot more likely to show symptoms of ADHD.
In order to figure out what was considered "frequent" use of social media, the students were surveyed about their tech use every six months throughout the two-year study. They answered questions about how often they do things like text, scroll through social media apps, share streaming videos and music, etc. In the survey, the teens could report that they never did these things, that they did them once or a twice a week, once or twice a day, or many times a day. If they reported using social media "many times a day," the research stated, it counted as a "high-frequency" use of digital media. Gulp. Excuse me while I close my Twitter app for the 50th time today.
As for how the researchers measured students' ADHD symptoms, the teens were assessed at both the beginning and end of the study via "a standardized questionnaire for ADHD symptoms," NPR reports.
So yes, by the end of the study, it was the "high-frequency" social media users who showed more symptoms of ADHD.
Dr. Katie Davis, PsyD, tells Elite Daily over email that this research supports the idea that technology can cause some serious dysfunction in something called the brain's default mode network (DMN). According to Davis, this part of your brain is active when you aren't really doing anything at all, and it's responsible for things like daydreaming and internally directed thought processes.
"People with ADHD unsurprisingly have dysfunction within the DMN at baseline," she tells Elite Daily. "Social media and other technologies make these problems even worse. When technology is used constantly, the brain stays in an active state, the dysfunction within the DMN is exacerbated, and symptoms of ADHD increase."
But in this day and age, how is it even possible to disengage from all this screen time?
Well, it definitely takes some effort. According to Marygrace Sexton, who's the founder of A-GAP, a non-profit foundation encouraging people to live their lives unplugged, developing a healthy relationship with social media involves a lot more than just restricting your use or cancelling your accounts. "It’s really about rethinking the way you interact with others," Sexton tells Elite Daily. "We are so used to keeping up with family and friends on social media that we greatly minimize the importance of face-to-face communications and experiences with these same people."
It’s not easy to make the shift, she says, but it is absolutely essential. "The way we do it is to come up with healthy alternatives that accomplish the same goal of staying in touch," Sexton says. For example, she adds, instead of jumping straight to your Facebook messages to ask your friend how they're doing, why not make an after-work plan to grab a bite together or go for a bike ride?
Unplugging from social media really can be as simple as that, she says. And given these new research findings, there's no better time than now to start making these little changes.