Thursday, 27 April 2017

Is screen time a risk factor for ADHD?

The findings reported by Vivien Suchert and colleagues [1] observing that "screen time, but not other non-screen-based sedentary activities should be considered as being a risk factor for ADHD [attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder]" taps into long-running debates on whether our societal obsession with watching, clicking and swiping might not be 'a totally positive thing' when it comes to psychological development, health and wellbeing.

Yes, I know this is a complicated area full of big personalities, sweeping generalisations, half-truths and soundbites (see here for example). But I talk about peer-reviewed science on this blog, and am dealing with presented evidence specifically looking at the issue of screen time and ADHD on this particular occasion.

So, taking a not insignificant sample number of over 900 young adults aged 13-17 years old, researchers assessed various parameters in relation to "screen-based and non-screen-based sedentary behavior and ADHD symptoms." When I say 'assessed', immediately one potentially big issue stands out when it comes to measures of sedentary behaviour used in the study and the inclusion of the questionnaire method over and above the use of more objective measures such as physical activity monitors (see here). No mind, researchers analysed the collected data and determined a few key observations not least that: "Screen time was related to the total ADHD score (p < 0.001) as well as to the subscales inattention (p ≤ 0.016) and hyperactivity/impulsivity (p ≤ 0.008)." Further: "Sedentary time without screens was virtually not associated with ADHD."

OK, to reiterate sweeping generalisations are not required on the basis of these results alone. There are a myriad of other methodological issues outside of just objective measures of sedentary behaviour that could skew the Suchert results and these should be taken into consideration. But set in the context that this is not the first time that screen use has been *corrrelated* with something like ADHD or ADHD-type behaviours [2] (or indeed the second time [3]) I'm minded to suggest that quite a more investigation is indicated. Of course, there are other factors to include in the research mix. The findings reported by Tong and colleagues [4] are potentially pertinent: "children with ADHD symptoms were likely to spend more time using a computer during school days; they were also more likely to eat while using a computer." This implies that ADHD or ADHD-type behaviours might predispose to increased screen time rather than the other way around. The relationship is likely to be complex.

In terms of the potential 'hows and whys' of any connection between screen time and ADHD-type behaviours, well, there are already some clues. I'd perhaps suggest that the effects of screen time on sleep could be a good place to start given other peer-reviewed research clues [5]. The relationship between sleep and ADHD is a complicated one, but it is known that sleep interventions can [modestly] affect the presentation of some ADHD behaviours (see here). There are no doubt other research avenues worth looking into also.

Should anyone act on the Suchert findings as they stand? Well, I don't do medical or clinical advice on this blog but I'm minded to suggest that some sensible advice provided by others might come into play: "No screens in the child’s bedroom. Pay attention to the content of the games, especially to violence. Set limits on screen time, and look for other ways to manage family interactions." With my 'what if' research hat on, I am also wondering whether the rise and rise of screens and screen time in the context of autism might also need some particular research examination, in light of the idea that autism and ADHD is not an unfamiliar diagnostic combination (see here)...

To close, although perhaps most famous as a 'rat tickler', the passing away of Jaak Panksepp a few days back deserves mention given his notable ideas about autism and the influence they had and continue to have...


[1] Suchert V. et al. Relationship between attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder and sedentary behavior in adolescence: a cross-sectional study. Atten Defic Hyperact Disord. 2017 Apr 4.

[2] Chan PA. & Rabinowitz T. A cross-sectional analysis of video games and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder symptoms in adolescents. Ann Gen Psychiatry. 2006 Oct 24;5:16.

[3] Montagni I. et al. Association of screen time with self-perceived attention problems and hyperactivity levels in French students: a cross-sectional study. BMJ Open. 2016 Feb 26;6(2):e009089.

[4] Tong L. et al. Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder and Lifestyle-Related Behaviors in Children. PLoS One. 2016 Sep 22;11(9):e0163434.

[5] Engelhardt CR. et al. Media use and sleep among boys with autism spectrum disorder, ADHD, or typical development. Pediatrics. 2013 Dec;132(6):1081-9.

---------- Suchert V, Pedersen A, Hanewinkel R, & Isensee B (2017). Relationship between attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder and sedentary behavior in adolescence: a cross-sectional study. Attention deficit and hyperactivity disorders PMID: 28378132