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Alarm bells over excessive screentime during pandemic

ADHD on the rise

Thomas Park/Unsplash

Meander Chronicle Reporter

Technology has enabled remote working, learning and social connections during the Covid-19 pandemic, but increases of up to 80%[i] in time spent in front of screens has seen a rise in ADHD symptoms such as lack of focus, poor concentration, and restlessness among both adults and children.

Excessive screentime, either watching television or using digital devices, affects concentration, memory and learning and contributes to problems with sleep, obesity, depression and anxiety – and aggravates the symptoms of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD).

Excessive screentime

Psychiatrist Prof Renata Schoeman, convenor of the ADHD special interest group of the SA Society of Psychiatrists (Sasop), said studies in countries including China, India, Australia, Canada, the US and UK, had pointed to excessive screentime during the pandemic associated with worsening of ADHD symptoms.

There has been a rise in the number of adults experiencing ADHD-type symptoms and in parents requesting ADHD assessments for their children.

Parents need to encourage family and outdoors activity and set limits on the amount of screentime allowed. Picture: Jimmy Dean/Unsplash

Schoeman said excessive screentime was particularly problematic for children and adults with ADHD.

“Children and adults with more severe ADHD symptoms, especially inattention, are at greater risk of indulging in excessive screentime, with harmful consequences including internet addiction or problematic digital media use,” Prof Schoeman said.

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ADHD is the most common psychiatric disorder in children, affecting about 1 in 20 kids, and follows about 65% of them into adulthood, affecting about 1 million adults in SA.[ii]

It is characterised by a persistent pattern of inattention, hyperactivity and impulsivity that impairs development and functioning, and is often coupled with behavioural, cognitive and social problems.
Schoeman said online schooling and technology during the pandemic had some positive impacts for children with the disorder.

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“Some of these children flourished in the more self-paced and flexible environment without the day-to-day social stresses and distractions in the physical school environment. But for others, the lack of structure, support and routine was problematic.

“On the negative side, children had to adapt to social isolation and the lack of their usual outlets for physical activity such as school sport. Screentime had a positive side in enabling them to stay socially connected, but the downside is the impact of excessive screen time on concentration, memory and learning, and problems in sleeping and in managing emotions.”

Watching excessive TV and cartoons and overdoing social media mean many kids are struggling with routine and excessive engagement with digital devices. Picture: Justin Lim on Unsplash

“There has also been a distinct difference in impact on children in underprivileged areas, where the technology resources are not there and access to treatment and support has been hampered by lockdowns,” Prof Schoeman said.

During the pandemic, adolescents with ADHD and parents of children with ADHD around the world have reported more problems with maintaining routines and managing remote learning, struggles with boredom and motivation, changes in sleeping patterns and trouble sleeping, more stress, anxiety and depression.

Professional help

“These symptoms were significantly worse where the ADHD patient had substantially increased their time spent on digital media, gaming and social media, with less time on physical exercise,” Schoeman said.

She said the increase in parents seeking professional help for possible ADHD diagnosis was likely due to working from home and supervising online schooling, and experiencing first-hand the behaviours that their children’s teachers may have alerted them to previously.

“For adults, working from home, juggling childcare and additional stresses, may have highlighted their difficulties with memory, concentration, organisation and motivation, leading them to seek professional help and being diagnosed with adult ADHD,” she said.

Take screentime out of mealtime and plan family time together. Picture: Nathan Dumlao/Unsplash

Although an increase in ADHD diagnosis in SA has not yet been researched, Schoeman said countries across the world had reported increases in ADHD symptoms and diagnosis.

She emphasised that it was important for concerned parents to consult a health professional for a formal diagnosis of ADHD, or to determine if there was another cause (such as sleep-deprivation, depression, anxiety, excessive screentime, or medical conditions), and to obtain appropriate treatment.

Schoeman advised parents to “take screentime out of mealtime”, promoting time spent together as a family and encouraging healthy eating behaviours.

Monitor your kids

Devices and televisions are best placed in common areas where their use can be monitored, as there is considerable evidence that children with a TV, and especially online devices, in their bedrooms are at greater risk of obesity, poor sleeping habits, depression and substance use.

“Studies have shown that the children of parents who control the length of time spent on screens, were more likely to engage in physical activities and spend time reading, so it is important that parents set limits, and do so consistently.

“With younger children, parents selecting suitable content and co-viewing it with their children enables parents to emphasise key messages and values, encourage them to ask questions and enhance the educational value of the content,” she said.

Schoeman encouraged parents to model healthy behaviour by limiting their own screentime, engaging in physical activities and reading.

*For help in managing ADHD symptoms, call the SA Depression and Anxiety Group (Sadag) ADHD Helpline on 0800 55 44 33.

[i] Pandya, A & Lodha, P. July 2021. Frontiers in Human Dynamics. “Social connectedness, excessive screen time during Covid-19 and mental health: A review of current evidence.” https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fhumd.2021.684137/full

[ii] Schoeman, R & Liebenberg, R. April 2017. SA Journal of Psychiatry. “The South African Society of Psychiatrists/Psychiatry Management Group management guidelines for adult attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder.” https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6138063/#CIT0007

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