Too much digital time can lead to ADD
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The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) misses the mark on its new digital media guidelines for children ages 0-5.  While one may argue that the takeaways from The AAP’s guidelines seem reasonable, there is more than meets the eye.  

Previously the AAP took a hard stance on its recommendation of zero hours of screen time per day for children under the age of two.  Under the new guidelines, however, they merely “suggest” that parents of children in this age group avoid digital media, with the exception of video chatting.  

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They also ask parents to choose high-quality programming should they allow their children to use digital media.  The new guidelines take a softer stance, offering parents a breathe of relief that they don’t need because let’s face it, not many parents follow the AAP’s guidelines anyway, whether old or new.   

The real issue that is being avoided and needs to be discussed is whether the AAP’s new guideline for children over the age of five will work?  Will the change from the previously recommended two hours a day of digital media for this age group to the newly recommended advice to develop a “Family Media Plan” do the trick?  I think not.   

A survey conducted by Common Sense Media one year ago found that the average 13-year-old spent eight hours per day using digital media, while teenagers ages 14 to 18 spent nine.   Should we really be talking about whether it is ok or not to allow a toddler to face-time grandma or grandpa or should we be talking about the fact that older children are swimming in a sea of technology, along with their parents?  

Take  a look around the next time you are at the park, the mall or a restaurant.   Everyone seems to be connected to a device and disconnected from each other.   Watch a professional sporting event on television and pay attention to the audience.  Many of the fans have no idea what is happening in the game because they are too distracted by their devices.  These are the things we need to discuss so the last thing we need is a softer stance on this issue regardless of age.

Back in 2009 I started receiving countless referrals at the high school where I work and at my private counseling practice for teenagers who had been recently diagnosed with Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD). I knew that something wasn’t right considering that the average age at diagnosis is age eight and I was handing dozens of referrals for fourteen-and-fifteen-year-olds being given the label.  My colleagues in neighboring school districts were seeing the same thing I was — an inordinate number of teenagers being diagnosed with ADD.

I started to aggressively research this new ADD trend and came across some pretty disturbing findings, namely something coined “Acquired Attention Deficit Disorder”, meaning that older children were developing symptoms of inattention and lack of focus due to too much time spent in front of screens.  I felt the need to educate parents about this so I began lecturing.   I called this lecture, Digitally Distracted: parenting in the age of technology.  While the bulk of my discussions involved brain neuroplasticity and the connection between too much digital media and ADD, I also talked about how digital media was affecting children in other ways.

Through my research and my professional experience I warned parents that if they did not get a grip on their children’s media diets, and their own, that we would not only continue to see a surge in ADD diagnoses’ but also an increase in mental and emotional health disorders in the near future. 

Fast-forward to today and much of what I predicted in 2009 is happening.  More and more kids are emotionally fragile because they lack the critical coping and communication skills that are needed to succeed because they don’t spend enough time engaged in the real world, person to person.  Communicating primarily through texts and posts prevents the development of these important skills because these are skills that can only be developed through face-to-face interaction.  A strong emotional intelligence (EQ) is one of the greatest predictors of human success in all areas—emotions, mental health, family -health and vocational success.  Without a strong EQ, which can only be strengthened by engaging in lots of face-to-face interaction with others, our children will continue to have a hard time handling the everyday bumps in the road of life.

Although I still receive a lot of referrals for teenagers that are misdiagnosed with ADD the pendulum has swung over the last couple of years.  A whole new set of disabilities has emerged — anxiety disorders.

Anxiety is now the number one type of disorder I treat in children.  In fact, I have received twice as many of these referrals over the last couple of years than I received in the previous 15-years combined.  This is no coincidence and has something to do with too much screen time and too little face-to-face time.  Dr. Michael Van Ameringen recently evaluated 254 freshmen at McMaster University in Ontario, Canada. Thirty-three of the students met criteria for internet addiction while 107 met the criteria for problematic internet use.  The student’s mental health was also assessed during the study and those who met the criteria for internet addiction showed higher rates of inattention, impulsivity, anxiety and depression.  

Folks, there is an unprecedented amount of mental, emotional and physical problems sprouting-up in children’s lives and much of the research points to device addiction as the culprit.  So, is the real issue whether a 2-year old should spend zero hours or one hour a day watching Barnie?  No the real issue is what will happen to these toddlers as they age if we extend them and ourselves too much slack now.

The potential problems are far greater than you know.  As a school counselor and private practice therapist of over 20 years I am fully immersed in the problems that stem from too much digital media use.  Nearly every mental, emotional and behavioral problem I treat now points to the same common denominator – electronic devices.   The softer we become in our approach, as recommended by The American Academy Of Pediatrics, the greater the electronic grip will be and the greater the chances that your children will have problems as they mature.  It’s time to take a tough stance on this issue, individually, one parent at a time.  Your opportunity to save your child starts right now.   

Tom Kersting is a nationally renowned psychotherapist and is the author of the upcoming book, Disconnected: why and how we can save our children from device dependency.


The views expressed by contributors are their own and not the views of The Hill.