Do You Have ADHD--Or Are You Just Easily Distracted?

Last Updated May 10, 2011 12:50 PM EDT

"I think I have ADHD" is the line of the year--or maybe the decade. So many people are worried that their growing inability to avoid checking Facebook, Twitter or favorite news feeds is altering their brains and is a sign that they're developing an attention deficit disorder.

But is the explosion of social media causing people to develop ADHD or are people with attention problems more likely to use the internet? And what are the warning signs that you might have ADHD?

"We've heard people in the media referring to our society as an ADHD prone society because of our exposure to so much visual media," says Dr. Russell Barkley, a leading ADHD expert and author of Taking Charge of Adult ADHD. "The fact of the matter is, there's not a shred of evidence that this is true and the relationship is the opposite. If you have ADHD you are more likely to use these media than other people," he says.

The theories first started floating around when studies found an association between the amount of visual media children use and their attention span. The researchers interpreted these associations to mean that media causes the attention problem, rather than that attention problems lead children to use more media. But the studies didn't prove this one way or the other. In today's New York Times, Perri Klass, M.D., a pediatrician, also questioned the popular thinking that TV causes ADHD in kids, writing,

But a 2007 study in the journal Media Psychology compared television watching in a group of children diagnosed with A.D.H.D. and a group without. The researchers concluded that most differences were accounted for by family factors and environment, including whether the children had televisions in their bedrooms. A.D.H.D. by itself didn't seem to make the difference.

ADHD Leads to Internet Use
There is more evidence that the relationship goes the other way. If you have ADHD--and about 90 percent of adults who have it remain undiagnosed and treated--you will gravitate more towards the internet and visual media because it's stimulating, it doesn't require a lot of attention, and if you're gaming, there are frequent rewards, which is appealing to people with ADHD, who have an altered dopamine reward system. "Families that have young children with ADHD are also more likely to use visual media to babysit their kids," says Barkley. It calms them down. And about one out of 10 children with ADHD have an internet addiction.

Distractability Is On The Rise

Still the relationship between media and attention is complex. There is no question that being pinged by IMs and emails is a distraction and that productivity goes down when you have these distractions. "But they don't cause you to be permanently distractable," says Barkley.

The real quetion is, why are you trying to work with your IM on and your computer set up so that you're alerted every time an email comes in? Barkley suggests asking yourself how to organize your environment to reduce the distractions and increase productivity. He checks emails only twice a day. Read my post on the Digital Diet for more ways to reduce your media distractions.

Signs of Adult ADHD
About 4 to 5 percent of adults have ADHD and about 90 percent of adults with it have not been diagnosed, so you may be one of them. One clue that you may have ADHD rather than normal distractability is if you find yourself somewhat addicted to the internet. "If you can't get off your crackberry and can't pull yourself away from other visual media despite the fact that more pressing things might be done, like getting your kids to school, it may be a sign," says Barkley.
Still, there's more to a diagnosis than not being able to get off Facebook. Check this symptom list developed by Barkley (it's slightly different than the list in the DSM-IV, the official diagnostic manual, but he has submitted this list to be used in the new edition that will come out in 2013). If you experience six or more of these symptoms that have persisted for at least six months, consult with your doctor:

  1. Often easily distracted by extraneous stimuli
  2. Often make decisions impulsively
  3. Often has difficulty stopping activities or behavior when they should do so
  4. Often starts a project or task without reading or listening to directions carefully
  5. Often shows poor follow through on promises or commitments they may make to others
  6. Often has trouble doing things in their proper order or sequence
  7. Often more likely to drive a motor vehicle much faster than others (Excessive speeding) (If person has no driving history, substitute: "Often has difficulty engaging in leisure activities or doing fun things quietly.")
  8. Often has difficulty sustaining attention in tasks or leisure activities
  9. Often has difficulty organizing tasks and activities

If you do exhibit these symptoms, visit CHADD for more information on diagnosis and treatments.


Laurie Tarkan is an award-winning health journalist who writes for the New York Times, national magazines and websites including Health, Prevention, Ladies Home Journal, iVillage and the Huffington Post. Follow her on twitter.
Photo courtesy of flickr user Lars Plougmann
  • Laurie Tarkan

    Laurie Tarkan is an award-winning health journalist who writes for The New York Times and many national magazines. She is a contributing editor at Fit Pregnancy magazine and the author of three books, Perfect Hormone Balance for Fertility, Perfect Hormone Balance for Pregnancy and My Mother's Breast: Daughters Ace Their Mothers' Cancer.. You can follow her on Twitter at @LaurieTarkan.