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Hey everyone. Here we are back on The Testing Psychologist.
Today’s episode is another episode in the ADHD Series. If you haven’t caught the previous few episodes, I’m dedicating Mondays for the next two months to tackling bite-size topics related to ADHD. [00:01:00] So definitely go back and check those out if you haven’t heard them already.
Today’s topic is the question of whether ADHD is “caused by our modern distraction-driven society.” This is an interesting question. It was a question that’s come up a lot over the past few years, both from clients and trainees, and something I’ve wondered about. You may have seen books like Stolen Focus, Dopamine Detox, and many others. So it’s definitely in popular culture as well. I’m going to try to dive in and summarize what I could find to answer this question.
Before we get to that, I would invite all of you to consider a Testing Psychologist Mastermind Group if you would like group coaching and accountability, have [00:02:00] some folks on your side to guide you in the right direction, and provide support when you need it. You can get more information and schedule a pre-group phone call at thetestingpsychologist.com/consulting.
Okay, let’s talk about ADHD and modern culture.
All right y’all, let’s get right to it. As I’ve said in previous episodes, this is not meant to be a comprehensive review necessarily. These episodes are just diving in just below the surface to summarize some of the research and provide some of my thoughts on these topics. [00:03:00] So let’s get to it as far as ADHD being caused by modern society.
This is a pretty loaded question, and not as simple a question as it seems on the surface, of course. If you’re taking this question very literally, there are, well, I’ll take that back. Let’s not take it literally. Let’s look at the different ways that you could interpret this question. You can interpret this question to mean:
- Is ADHD simply a byproduct of modern society, i.e., did it just come into existence over the last several years?
- You could also look at this question to mean, are rates of ADHD increasing as a result of modern society?
- You could also look at it to say, are individuals who otherwise would not [00:04:00] have ADHD be diagnosed with ADHD because of the way that our society is structured? And modern society, when you even break that down a little bit, is interpreted as the attention-driven economy, social media, that sort of thing.
- You can also interpret it as the high stress, high demand, expectations that we have both for kids and for adults at work, the fallacy of multitasking, the prevalence of email, and other electronic distractions.
So, there’s a lot to unpack here in this question, but I’m going to do my best.
So, let’s take this literally. I’m going to go back to that statement. Research will say that historically, [00:05:00] concerns about ADHD have been around for centuries. I believe it was hypocrites maybe who has the first recorded notes of individuals who had ADHD-like characteristics. Obviously, it was not called ADHD back then, but he described folks who seemed to have trouble focusing for an extended period of time.
Fast forward many years, there were some mentions, I think, the late 1700s, a few sprinkled throughout the 1800s, and then it really picked up steam in the early 1900s when a physician started to notice patients with these characteristics and do some more writing on ADHD. I think it was 1903.
From that point, [00:06:00] it got more popular and really picked up steam in the 60s, 70s, and beyond. And here we are today, still quite popular, still in the media and the academic literature. So it’s not going away, but that’s the short and simple answer to this question, is it just a byproduct of industrialized society or modern society? The historical data would suggest that it is not.
Another piece of that is that there is decent research to say now that individuals with ADHD do have different brains than non-ADHD folks; structurally, brains are different. That feels important. We do consider ADHD to be a neurodevelopmental disorder, meaning that it is [00:07:00] present from birth and childhood, and it’s not something that you develop necessarily.
Inherent in this question is the implicit assumption that someone could develop ADHD just as a function of living in this society. So the research saying that ADHD brains are different would at least to me suggest that that is not necessarily the case.
When we dig into the research about the actual impact of technology on ADHD or on our brains, there is some pretty good research out there to say that technology has a very small impact on executive functioning and ADHD symptoms. And it’s unclear whether screens are actually causing the ADHD or [00:08:00] just pulling kids or adults away from more enriching activities that would otherwise maybe protect against ADHD symptoms like exercise or good sleep, for example.
A recent meta-analysis from The Journal of the American Medical Association showed a “weak but significant relationship between screens and aggression, inattention, anxiety, and depression. If you’ll forgive me, I believe that we’re talking primarily about video games in this research. I could be wrong, but I believe that’s what we’re talking about. So when you actually look at the research, at least at this point, weak but significant relationship between screens and some of these [00:09:00] ADHD symptoms.
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All right. Let’s get back to the podcast.
Now, that said, it is indisputable that the current attention economy is hurting us all. I mentioned these books like Stolen Focus, Dopamine Detox, and Deep Work, which I’ve talked a lot about on the podcast. They’re all speaking to this problem. [00:10:00] There is some research…
This to me gets more into the social media realm. And that feels like a little bit of a different beast than the video game realm. So when you do look at social media, there are some suggestions that social media is problematic especially for mental health, especially with adolescents, where we’re going to see higher rates of depression and anxiety, that sort of thing, with increased social media use.
But there’s also some information to say that it’s not necessarily the frequency of social media use as much as problematic social media use, which means social media use that is more like addictive behavior where kids are having trouble controlling their [00:11:00] use; they can’t stop and they’re neglecting other activities to use social media. That may lead to increased attention problems over time.
There are also some suggestions that our brains may become “rewired” with extended use of social media, which then makes us unable to engage in deep work even when distractions are removed. So I think there is some data out there to suggest that we do have more trouble paying attention when we spend more time on social media or these technology platforms that are competing for our attention and feeding us material, just item after item, one after the other.
But is that causing ADHD? I don’t think [00:12:00] so. I don’t know that we have the data to say that because to me what that would mean is that we would have to see imaging to show that chronic social media or technology use is leading to the same structural changes in the brain that we have found are characteristic of individuals with ADHD. I don’t know that we have that at this point. If we do, if you’re that person, if you’re that researcher, or just someone who knows of that research, please send me a message.
But there’s another question I think built into this, which is the pathology question. That to me feels like a little bit of a different question.
So if we think of ADHD as a set of symptoms that occur together, and it is a behavioral diagnosis which leads to the idea that it’s environmentally [00:13:00] dependent. So where a kid goes to school, their parents’ expectations, the behavior of kids around them. The same thing for adults; the behavior of other adults around them, and their “culture,” that’s going to change how their behavior is perceived and that’s going to change whether the diagnostic criteria are the same for everyone. I don’t think it is. I think the environment matters.
So this really touches on the neurodiversity idea, which is that if there… well, this is a component like, is this just a mismatch between a person and environment and in a different environment, these skills would actually be strengths?
A lot to say on that. I’m not going to go deep into that question, but I think this idea is important to consider. So when we’re asking, is ADHD caused by modern society? I [00:14:00] think there is something to say for the fact that, I don’t know, I think it’s pretty clear. We have higher expectations for our kids at a younger age, and a lot of us have more demand at work; with email and instant messaging, and so forth, there are increased demands. The bar keeps getting raised for harnessing your attention. So there is something to be said for that.
Now, I don’t think that it’s causing ADHD exactly, but these factors could certainly lead to more individuals appearing to show symptoms of ADHD.
All of this is to say that there’s a lot more work to be done, and it would be amazing if we could solid research or a means of diagnosing ADHD that is not reliant just on behavioral [00:15:00] observation. So we all know that there’s more work to do there.
One last point that I want to mention that is related to screen time but I didn’t necessarily make explicit, is the disruption of sleep which we know has a big impact on attention and executive functioning. Pretty good research out there to say that screens, especially if they’re used right up until bedtime, do disrupt sleep. And that’s not a good thing when we’re talking about attention and trying to function best. So lots of factors here.
All in all, though, at least for me, it’s safe to say ADHD is not being caused by modern society, or it’s not just a byproduct of modern society, but our attention economy is certainly not doing us any favors. [00:16:00] It’s not helping us to be more focused to be exposed to all of these apps, software, and attentional demands every day. So a complicated issue.
As always, if you have any feedback or resources, let me know. But I hope you can take at least one or two things from this. And maybe it’s just got you thinking about your own life or the lives of your clients and how these topics might be coming up.
Thank you as always for tuning in. I will be continuing with the ADHD series. I think in the next business episode, I am talking about EOS again as we continue on that journey. So stay tuned. If you’re not subscribed to the podcast, a great time to do that. And if you would like some support and accountability in running your practice, I would love to help you out, and [00:17:00] so would 5 other psychologists just like you. You can get more info at thetestingpsychologist.com/consulting and maybe schedule a pre-group call. We’ll talk about whether it’s a good fit for you.
Okay, y’all. Take care. I’ll be back in a few days.
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