Pay Attention! You Digital Natives

According to a new study recently published in JAMA (Journal of the American Medical Association) there is a significant association between the use of digital media and the subsequent symptoms of Attention Deficit Disorder (ADHD) (Ra et al 2018). This should come as no surprise to anyone who has watched their teenager doing homework while texting, face-timing, snap-chatting or instagramming.

The digital revolution has brought us an ever-growing array of sophisticated ways to connect to others and yet I find the epidemic of alienation seems to be growing among our children.  They spend long hours in front of a screen or sitting in a classroom.  They eat when they’re not hungry.  They have less and less exposure to nature. They go to sleep long after they’re tired and wake before they’re ready to.  All these contribute to an accumulation of stress that shifts our ability to pay attention calmly (Swing et al 2010). Studies have shown that just having a phone on the table while eating a meal will reduce the depth and quality of conversation that takes place.

From the moment they’re born, these “digital natives” are bathed in a world of high–speed visual stimuli. In my practice, I see one-year olds sitting on their mothers’ laps intensely navigating their cell phone way faster than I can.  That’s because I’m a “digital immigrant.” I can speak the language but not fluently because I wasn’t born into it.

These days we consider multi-tasking to be natural. But there is considerable research showing that the increased demands of multitasking come at a cost to how deeply and calmly we pay attention.  Studies at Stanford have shown that the mind doesn’t really multitask at all. (Ophir 2009) It may look like that’s what your child is doing when she’s texting while eating dinner or doing her homework but in reality, the mind is simply jumping very quickly from one activity to another often at the expense of quality, depth and efficiency of focus. This jumping back and forth may actually be increasing stress. Studies done in settings where the demands for multitasking are high such as traffic controllers and emergency room workers have shown that multitasking significantly increases “interrupt-driven” errors that can have potentially fatal consequences (Rubinstein 2001).

Because the digital world is a reality in all our lives, I spend a lot of time exploring this with families in my practice.  Parents often tell me that while their child can’t pay attention in school, he seems to have absolutely no problem spending hours glued to videogames at home.  In fact, some parents may think that video games help a child’s attention but in fact I find that for some children this is directly contributing to their academic and emotional problems in school.

“The Slow Modem Syndrome”

I’m sure everyone has felt the frustration and boredom when your connection to your phone or computer is slow, right?  Well that’s exactly how it feels for your “digital native” when he has to sit in an analog classroom listening to a teacher drone on, once he’s adapted to the instant gratification of digital connection.  It’s like having a slow modem in your head!  Of course it’s hard to pay attention in that setting.

We can’t blame our children for adapting to the environment we’ve created for them.  What we can do is support the kind of healthy natural rhythms in their lives (and ours) that will reduce the stress of digital alienation, improve a sense of community and reconnect to each other.  Here’s some things you can do right now to prevent the symptoms of ADHD in your life.

  • No screens at the mealtime (that means phones too!)
  • Practice the art of conversation wherever you are.
  • The 1:1 challenge – for every minute on a screen you must spend equal time in nature.
  • No screens at least one hour before bed.
  • Watch things on screens together, not alone.
  • Try doing at least one non-digital uni-tasking activity a day.
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