NASHVILLE (BP)—Teens who report high-frequency digital media use are twice as likely to develop attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, a study in the Journal of the American Medical Association reports. Christian mental health practitioners say excessive screen time can damage the soul, as well.
“Screens today are the modern-day Baal—the socially acceptable thing that keeps us from a deepening relationship with Jesus,” said Joshua Straub, a marriage and family strategist for LifeWay Christian Resources.
The study “supports ongoing research that too much screen time is detrimental to our hearts, minds and souls,” said Straub, a child psychologist. “Yet for some reason, we—as a society—seem to be ignoring the data.”
Study connects screen time and ADHD symptoms
Researchers at three universities—the University of Southern California, the University of California at San Diego and the University of California at Los Angeles—examined a pool of 4,100 15- and 16-year-olds in the Los Angeles area for the study.
They pared the pool down to 2,587 teens with no preexisting ADHD symptoms, then asked how frequently those teens used 14 digital media platforms. Participants subsequently were monitored for digital media use and ADHD symptoms over a two-year period.
Among the digital platforms studied were social media, texting, Internet browsing, streaming or downloading music, chatting online and streaming television or movies.
Youth in the study who said they used at least half the platforms “many” times per day were more than twice as likely as low- or medium-frequency users to develop ADHD symptoms.
The National Institute of Mental Health defines ADHD as “a brain disorder marked by an ongoing pattern of inattention and/or hyperactivity-impulsivity that interferes with functioning or development.”
While 4.6 percent of teens who reported no use or moderate use of the digital platforms developed ADHD symptoms, 10.5 percent who used all 14 platforms many times per day exhibited symptoms, as did 9.5 percent who used half the platforms many times per day.
‘Statistically significant association’
Adam Leventhal, a USC professor and coauthor of the study, said it “raises concern whether the proliferation of high-performance digital media technologies may be putting a new generation of youth at risk for ADHD,” according to a USC news release. He noted the study “can’t confirm causation” but shows “a statistically significant association.”
“What’s new is that previous studies on this topic were done many years ago, when social media, mobile phones, tablets and mobile apps didn’t exist,” Leventhal added. “New mobile technologies can provide fast, high-intensity stimulation accessible all day, which has increased digital media exposure far beyond what’s been studied before.”
Chuck Hannaford, a clinical psychologist who served on the Southern Baptist Convention Executive Committee’s Mental Health Advisory Group, said the study “confirms much of what we already know.”
“There is a link between social media, smartphone use, gaming and mental health in teens. It is not a positive connection,” Hannaford said.
“Smartphones, social media and online gaming do have an impact on a developing youth. Studies have linked excessive screen time to mental health issues among youth. There are indications that those prone to depression and anxiety, in addition to deficits in cognitive functioning, can develop mental health issues.”
‘Pursue real relationships, not simply virtual ones’
“Young people need to pursue real relationships, not simply virtual ones,” said Hannaford, president of Heart Life Professional Soul Care in Germantown, Tenn. “We may be allowing our children to bypass certain strengths that come from personal interactions, healthy competition and the resiliency that comes from group interaction by allowing them to withdraw and distract themselves from the tension of life.”
Though ADHD is over-diagnosed in youth, Hannaford said, “parents should take note and research what they can do if their teen is spending too much time bypassing the development of the constructs necessary for the pursuit of goals and relationships.”
A person touches, swipes or taps their phone hundreds of times a day, Straub said, adding, “It’s hard to help our kids and teens when we ourselves as adults can’t put them down.”
Proverbs 3:3 and 7:2-3 are two Scriptures that apply to screen time, Straub said.
In them, the Old Testament writer “tells us to write the steadfast love and commands of God on the ‘tablet’ of our heart. He describes our hearts as a tablet. What we’re writing on them matters,” Straub said. “The coveting of products through advertisements or the coveting of other people’s lives through social media does nothing fruitful for our hearts.
“When we train our brains for screens, they become wired for screens. When we train them for relationships, they become wired for relationships. Our tablets of our hearts need people—real face-to-face time. In fact, there’s nothing that can give your child more of an advantage in life, education or for their spiritual journey than you the parent in face-to-face eye contact.”