Research suggests that social media use may lead to ADHD. Is that so bad, asks Pravina Rudra, who has the condition
July 25 2018, 12:01am,
THOMAS SKOVSENDE FOR THE TIMES
Among the waves of reports that social media is causing everything from depression to anxiety, the latest research has suggested that increased social media use could cause ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder). A study of 2,500 Los Angeles high-school students published last week showed that every time a teenager engaged more frequently with digital media, they were more likely to report ADHD symptoms later.
It’s the kind of news that makes you roll your eyes. In a world where our phones explode with a cacophony of alerts every minute, where children have the option of seeing a Snapchat from Outer Mongolia rather than burying their head in a textbook and their popularity depends on emitting a constant stream of Instagram posts, you might wonder how technology could not be the cause of an attention deficit.
At least, that was what I thought when it was suggested to me that I might have ADHD by a lecturer in an economics tutorial during my second year at Oxford. I was 19, and for first time in my life I was being told off for not handing work in. Frankly, I was offended. Wasn’t I just burning the candle a bit too much at both ends and spending too much time on Facebook? How could I have ADHD? I wasn’t naughty or hyperactive, and most of all I wasn’t a little boy.
From what I’d heard about it, ADHD mainly seemed like a convenient way for parents to excuse their children from being naughty or to get extra time in exams. Even the celebrities who supposedly had it, such as Justin Timberlake, didn’t seem to be like me — they were loud and American (think Will.i.am and Michael Phelps). And, of course, there’s the ADHD medication you read about; it seemed entirely possible that the disorder was invented to fill the pockets of profiteering pharmaceutical companies.
In the light of family, friends and society suggesting that an ADHD diagnosis might just be about pill-popping, I dismissed it for a while. Yet the more I learnt about it, the more I could see parallels in various aspects of my life. It was the same for Richard Bacon. The broadcaster was diagnosed with ADHD this year and he has since explained how his diagnosis helped him to understand the general sense of chaos that prevailed in his life, not least his being fired from Blue Peter in 1998 for cocaine use.
I can’t relate to the cocaine thing, but I can empathise with how he once left his passport on top of a urinal in an Italian airport and subsequently had to be smuggled into Croatia for a TV show. While I always found things easy that others found hard, the reverse was also true: I had always taken hours to do the easiest of things; tidying, getting ready in the morning. The way I vacuumed a room was bizarre: while I’d start out with the intention of going back and forth in straight lines, I’d end up darting from corner to corner; half an hour later the floor would still be covered in dust.
I know what you’re probably thinking, but ADHD isn’t about a lack of willpower, it’s a biological error: a dysregulation of neurotransmitters means that your brain doesn’t always pump out the dopamine you need, and will do absolutely anything to get it, steering you towards a different task; whatever is new and exciting. It performs pure trickery. While the person with a normal brain will consciously procrastinate (“Ah, I don’t really want to do my work, I am going to, erm, wash up these dishes, and put it off for a little while”), my brain would be saying, “Ooh look, dishes — I must wash them.” I realised that my brain is a Ferrari at 200mph and I had no idea where the brakes were (or at least under which pile of clothes I’d lost them).
My story is familiar to Louise Mensch, who was diagnosed with ADHD in her twenties. As a former Conservative Party poster girl with tightly pinned back blond hair, she is all too “put-together” to fit the stereotype of an ADHD-sufferer. Yet, as she explained to me: “I remember once coming back to my house, opening a cupboard and finding literally eight jars of peanut butter. Every time I would visit the supermarket I would forget what I’d bought and I’d buy another jar of peanut butter. I remember having this flash of fear and wondering if I’d got early-onset Alzheimer’s. But the answer is I have raging ADHD — you don’t focus on what you don’t care about, and I don’t care about shopping.”
Even once you know that you have ADHD, getting others to accept it isn’t always easy. For a start, although some believe the illness to be overdiagnosed, getting a proper diagnosis can be a long process — in my case it took four years and three doctors. Then the question persists about whether adult ADHD is merely a product of the attention-sparse, digital era we live in. “I find I get distracted as well,” a friend will say, knowingly. “I think I might have ADHD.” In a flash the person squares every memory of inadequacy — pressing repeat on cat videos and refreshing their Mail Online sidebar a little too often — with having a neurological condition.
In fact, since diagnosis the hardest reaction I’ve had to deal with is the scepticism I initially had around ADHD being reflected back at me by others. Coming out with ADHD is not dissimilar from how I imagine coming out of the closet to be. There is a swathe of wise people who, like evangelical purists, believe they know better, that our condition is temporary at best, and curable.
The symptoms of ADHD — not being able to focus on what interests us — appear under the conditions of laziness and selfishness. The Whitbread award-winning author Tim Lott suffers from ADHD and has recalled a time when his wife would play the game “ADHD or twat”. At best, the characteristics associated with ADHD don’t seem too unusual; it begets sarcastic responses along the lines of: “You mean to say you lose your keys and zone out in meetings? What an unusual and unique experience, that has never happened to me.”
While the recent study is an important warning of the dangers of overexposure to social media — sufferers of ADHD need to be particularly careful about the time they spend online — it’s important to note that self-reporting ADHD symptoms (as was used for the study) is not the same as a doctor giving you the diagnosis.
The symptoms are far more nuanced than one might expect, as Dr James Kustow, a consultant psychiatrist and national expert on the condition, explains. “Sure, ADHD-type symptoms may be experienced by people across the spectrum, but they do not impact with the same severity, or cluster in the same idiosyncratic way as with ADHD,” he says. “People don’t realise it’s not like dyslexia, which tends to impact in more isolated areas. ADHD can affect ability to read or tidy your room, but it’s much more than that.”
The study also prompts a chicken-and-egg debate — who knows if the teenagers would have developed ADHD over the course of the study regardless of their use of social media? There is a growing hypothesis that ADHD might develop after childhood; a 2016 study by King’s College London showed that 70 per cent of young adults who tested positive for it didn’t appear to have the condition as children. Yet, bizarrely, the reverse is often assumed: until 2008, adult ADHD was not recognised in the UK because it was believed that it disappeared with childhood. Many doctors still adhere to diagnostic criteria that require a minimum threshold of symptoms to have been displayed as a child, and the absence of symptoms in my childhood was the reason that I was not diagnosed by the first doctor I saw. It is hard to tell whether I had ADHD as a child; on the one hand, a high IQ and the routine of school and my diligent Asian parents chivvying me around might have masked some symptoms. Then again, my symptoms were much milder then.
There are other misdiagnoses, as Kustow explains. “Often, particularly in those with a high IQ, extraordinary effort has been employed to compensate for the difficulties incurred and the impairment can be hidden. Sufferers are often misdiagnosed with personality or anxiety disorders.” Indeed, girls are more likely to be of the “inattentive” ADHD subtype, as opposed to “hyperactive”, and are therefore overlooked — staring out of the window of a classroom is less noticeable than trying to scale the walls of it.
The next question is: what benefit does a diagnosis bring? The elephant in the room is surely ADHD drugs. Mensch isn’t alone in her wish that “the British press would stop with this rubbish about Ritalin zombies”. It’s particularly unhelpful, Kustow explains, because “the medications used like Ritalin are some of the safest and most effective in the armoury of western medicine. They’ve been using them since the 1940s.” Besides, it’s not one prescription fits all, and not everyone with ADHD takes medication. Still, most doctors reckon it’s worth taking medication if you find a drug that works, and many credit this treatment with turning their lives around.
As someone who can barely tolerate caffeine or alcohol, I’m not the best test case for meds — those I was initially prescribed left me half-awake for a year. However, even I have tried at least one medication that felt as though it lifted a fog from my head. Best of all, with meds I largely retained the good aspect of my ADHD — my creativity and drive didn’t disappear.
And a diagnosis is about far more than drugs; I have finally realised why I have been pointlessly beating myself up all these years and have regained confidence I need not have lost. I am more fulfilled because I have time to enjoy myself and be more productive. I will never “get the better of my ADHD” by trying harder, no more than I could “get the better of my short-sightedness” by squinting. Yet I understand how to adjust and work with, rather than against it.
Those with ADHD have unique strengths. Our high standards for stimulation, for instance, mean that we aren’t content to just pass the hours, and while doing tasks we are capable of hyperfocus. Crucially ADHD is not about a complete dearth of neurotransmitters, but a weird, inconsistent disbursement of them — you cannot distract me when I am “in the zone”. And while the mind of someone with ADHD may often be elsewhere, it is not nowhere — we thrive on multitasking. I’m good at languages partly because through my teenage years I became bored with reading simple texts and couldn’t help the back of my mind from translating them into French or German to occupy my brain’s thirst for stimulation.
Above all, ADHD allows people to think outside of the box — entrepreneurs such as Richard Branson attribute much of their success to the condition. One of the buzzwords in business bibles from Fast Company to Harvard Business Review is “neurodiversity”, the direct impact of employing different thinking types and the competitive advantage it gives companies.
The irony is that even if our digital age does make ADHD more likely, it could also make having it an advantage: since artificial intelligence can do many “in the box” tasks and the administrative and manual tasks we struggle with will be automated, thinking outside of the box will become more important. And as everything moves faster, you need people who can hop from task to task, not people who need to take things slowly. In the immortal words of the famous 1990s Apple ad, it’s the misfits, rebels and “round pegs in square holes” who see differently enough to push the human race forward. There lies the benefit of people with ADHD: we may not be capable of wearing matching socks, but we’re unlikely to be replaceable by robots.
Tips for making the most of ADHD
1 Accept your diagnosis, believe and capitalise on it. Don’t think you are a delicate snowflake for using different strategies to your colleagues — your brain is, after all, wired differently.
2 Hem yourself in. If you’re a “floater”, you need to put a swim lane in place to keep yourself on track. Time-block your day in your calendar and set alarms.
3 Sleep and exercise are worth more than any medication. Get your eight hours and force yourself to exercise every couple of days. If I plan to work out the next morning, I wear my sports kit to bed so there’s one less thing stopping me from getting on with it.
4 The little things make a difference. If it will make you look stupid or anal, or both — so be it. For example, I use a phone case designed for builders in anticipation of the numerous times I’ll drop my iPhone.
5 Visit the doctor. If you can afford to go private, do. If you can’t, push your GP to refer you to a specialist as soon as possible, and do not settle for a doctor who is unhelpful.
6 See a coach who can help with setting targets and advise on ADHD-specific strategies.
7 Delegate as much as possible. I initially cringed when Louise Mensch suggested that people with ADHD get a housekeeper, but now, I occasionally put money aside for someone to do odd jobs like ironing. If it takes you five times the amount of time it takes others, and you are privileged enough to be able to pay for it, it makes sense.
8 Be open about ADHD as a difference, not an excuse. On the whole, it has benefited me to be open about ADHD in work and in relationships. And if you join groups with others who have the condition, you will find comfort in the arms of people who “get it”.