The effects of screen time on ADHD

Posted on 27 February 2020

Excessive screen time can have a serious impact on the health of any child. But can it exacerbate, or even cause, symptoms of ADHD?

Attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is a common neurological disorder that affects as many as one in 10 children worldwide. In South Africa, it is recognised as one of the most commonly diagnosed chronic childhood disorders in the country.

Now, a recent study suggests a modern rise in the time pre-schoolers spend in front of screens can lead to a range of symptoms remarkably similar to this common disorder. But are they connected?

Dr Michelle van Niekerk, a paediatrician at Mediclinic Hermanus, explains that ADHD is often explained as an imbalance or destruction of chemical messengers in the brain. “These neurotransmitters would usually assist with someone’s ability to focus or prioritise, control impulsive activity, inhibit inappropriate fidgeting or restlessness – and assist the brain in filtering out background noise or distractions.”

A 2019 study published in the peer-reviewed, open access journal PLOS One suggests that children who spend more than two hours in front of screens – including gaming and mobile devices – each day had a seven-fold increased risk of meeting criteria for ADHD.

This new study builds on a growing body of research showing a link between screen time and attention issues. The Dunedin Study suggests that increased TV viewing from five to eleven years old is associated with attention problems in adolescents – and a 2017 survey that examined adolescent sedentary behaviour recommended that screen time should be considered a risk factor for symptoms of ADHD.

The study does not show a causal link between excessive screen time and the condition, but it does suggest that too much time in front of movies can lead to worsening inattention problems.

Paediatrician Dr Hannelie Potgieter, based at Mediclinic Potchefstroom, warns that inattention is a primary marker of ADHD, along with hyperactivity and impulsivity. “These are the main behavioural warning signs. But what is important to note is that these symptoms often lead to other issues: a child who cannot pay attention for long periods will struggle to see things, like homework and school projects, through to the end, and someone who is hyperactive will often battle to socialise properly.”

This means that while it is not a spectrum of conditions, similar to autism, it is not strictly a learning disability either – but because a child with the condition will usually struggle to concentrate, it can cause a learning disability over time.

Crucially, all of these studies found that their child subjects were spending an average of two hours in front of some sort of screen each day. This is higher than the recommended amount.

According to 2016 recommendations by the American Academy of Pediatrics, children aged between two and five should spend no more than one hour per day in front of a screen, while older children and teenagers should be encouraged to balance their media use with other healthy behaviours.


Further reading:

Is ADHD a learning disability?

In the interest of our patients, in accordance with SA law and our commitment to expertise, Mediclinic cannot subscribe to the practice of online diagnosis. Please consult a medical professional for specific medical advice. If you have any major concerns, please see your doctor for an assessment. If you have any cause for concern, your GP will be able to direct you to the appropriate specialists.