By Caitlin Dewey
Tell me if this scenario sounds familiar to you:
You get into work. You’re feeling productive. You’ve powered through approximately three emails/order forms/whatever qualifies as progress in your particular industry when – BAM – your best friend signs onto Gchat and sends you a video of a dachshund puppy getting pushed around in a tiny shopping cart.
No big deal! – you think. You will return to emails in approximately five seconds, right after you check Facebook and answer that email your mom sent you about the date of your cousin’s wedding. But on Facebook, someone has posted a really interesting article about J. Crew, which reminds you (about two sentences in) that you wanted to check J. Crew’s site real quick to see if it was spring sale time yet, which – oh hey!! Push notification from Instagram!
It’s no secret that the internet presents a bevy of distractions. Many of us have grudgingly accepted perpetual scatterbrain as a hallmark of modern life, as unavoidable as Facebook and the Kardashians. But in a lecture at SXSW last week, University of Chicago psychologist Michael Pietrus floated a provocative hypothesis: Maybe these aren’t just internet-age annoyances but something approaching an actual pathology.
“We are not saying that internet technologies and social media are directly causing ADHD,” Pietrus cautions. But the internet, he says, “can impair functioning in a variety of ways … that can mimic and in some cases exacerbate underlying attention problems.”
ADHD, or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, is one of the great specters of 21st-century psychology. For parents of children who have it – and more than 1 in 10 do, per the CDC – ADHD is a behavioral scourge, making their kids impatient, restless, impulsive and easily bored. For adults who have it – an estimated 4.4 per cent – the disorder can make it difficult to concentrate on one thing for any period of time. Adults with ADHD, unlike kids, usually aren’t “hyperactive” in the conventional sense. But they can be compulsive, easily distracted, easily bored. They lose interest halfway through reading an article or completing a task.
They’re “hardwired for novelty seeking,” Pietrus said – much like your average internet junkie, opening 150 tabs at a time and clutching his smartphone in jittery hands.
After all, when you think about it, the internet essentially promises two things: instant gratification and an endless, varied, hyper-stimulating buffet of entertainment and information options. If you don’t like one thing within the first five seconds, you can (and, science says, do) jump to something else.
The internet, it turns out, incentivises the exact types of behaviors and thought processes that characterise ADHD.
The question now is whether the symptoms of compulsive internet use and the symptoms of ADHD share any deeper commonalities. Researchers have, it’s worth noting, linked the two before: ADHD is a common “comorbidity,” or accompanying condition, of internet addiction, which means that people who use the internet excessively are likely to also have symptoms of ADHD.
ADHD rates, much like internet use, are also inexplicably up over the past 10 years: from 7.8 per cent of kids in 2003 to 11 percent in 2011, the last year the CDC measured.
And while we tend to think of attention or discipline as a sort of constant, a matter of individual personality, Pietrus points out that the brain can change – and it can change in response to how we use technology.
“But which way the arrow of causality flows is the important question,” explained Peter Killeen, a former behavioral neuroscience researcher at Arizona State University who has written extensively on ADHD.
Killeen points out the classic parental fear of of kids developing ADHD from video games. There does indeed seem to be some indication that the attention-deficit play games more – but is that because the games are giving them ADHD, because they’re more drawn to their flashiness than the average kid, or because excessive gaming can delay social development in any child and it’s just more obvious in the ones with ADHD?
The case of internet use is similar: The Web certainly may cause ADHD-like symptoms, and it could exacerbate the disorder in children and adults who suffer from it already … but there’s no evidence that internet use could actually cause an otherwise healthy person to develop the disorder.
After all, ADHD is believed to have a range of underlying genetic causes, things you couldn’t just “catch” from a computer screen. And as Pietrus himself points out, there isn’t yet enough research to comment on causality. (“Showing something is ‘causal’ in psychiatry is really difficult because people with difficulties are often the ones that select specific types of environment,” said Anita Thapar, a clinical professor of child and adolescent psychiatry at Cardiff University. In other words, people with ADHD might just go on the internet more.)
There’s even some research, in fact, that the internet could actually help people with attention disorders. Last June, a team of Swedish researchers trialled an online therapy program for adults with the disorder; adults in the program saw a sharp reduction in their symptoms, even though (or perhaps because?) the therapy was administered online.
Whatever the exact relationship between the internet and ADHD, Pietrus says it is important to realise that pushing back against these symptoms requires a careful, intentional strategy. There’s a lot of research that suggests mindfulness and meditation could help people sustain their attention, even online; Pietrus also suggests techniques like expressive writing or “chunking,” which helps short-term information stick in your mind.
“The biggest thing is to increase awareness and understanding of what social media and technology are doing to us,” he said. “Once we acknowledge the potential effects on our brains, we can make better-informed choices about our actions and behavioral patterns.”