Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder is a common issue. While rates seem to have leveled off in the past decade, they haven’t decreased—and they’re still higher than historical norms. As with any health condition that seem to “appear” all of sudden across society, we have to wonder if something about the modern world is triggering a rise in ADHD. Plenty has been written about diet and other relevant environmental inputs that have changed in recent decades. What about another, arguably more recent shift—technology? Does technology increase or worsen ADHD? To answer that, we have to go back. We have to look at Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder in an ancestral context.
Living with ADHD Then and Now
A 2008 study found that among two rural tribes of Kenya—one nomadic, one settled in villages—those with genetic signatures of ADHD living in the nomadic (and more ancestrally aligned) group were more successful, having higher body weights and more lean mass (muscle). Their genetic drive actually improved their ability to contribute to the group and succeed in the nomadic, hunting, and foraging environment, whereas in the settled group those with ADHD signatures were lighter and less nourished.
What is this genetic signature? It’s a variant of the dopamine 4 receptor—DRD4-7R—that dulls the intracellular response to dopamine in carriers. What’s dopamine have to do with ADHD? Dopamine is often called the pleasure neurotransmitter, but it’s really the motivation neurotransmitter. Dopamine is a wanting chemical that compels us to seek, do, move, to make things happen. To do so, it triggers reward pathways in the brain using other chemicals.
When you “win” at anything, you get a hit of dopamine. The hit of dopamine is intended to perpetuate the action that got you the victory. It’s supposed to keep you pushing forward to greater wins and greater rewards despite turmoil and difficulty. For instance, dopamine raises the fatigue threshold during intense exercise. It actually makes you stronger and more resistant to suffering and hard times, and not just in exercise but in business, hobbies, everything that requires effort.
This is where ADHD comes in. If dopamine isn’t as “effective” in a person with ADHD, they have trouble pushing through the drudgery and the early tough moments to see something through, whether it’s studying, writing a paper, or following through with an idea for a business.
The genetic signature in question increases a person’s drive toward novelty, thrill-seeking, and even food and substance abuse issues. In other words, it pushes them toward “easier wins.” This drive makes sense in a hunting and gathering setting where you have to be willing to expose yourself to dangerous situations, explore new locations, and relentlessly pursue food and sustenance. There are a lot of moving parts out in the wilderness, and the tasks you have before you are acutely stressful and intense. They’re closer to video games than studying for an exam.
That’s why the Kenyan nomads with ADHD signatures did so well and the Kenyan villagers with ADHD signatures did not: the nomadic environment is set up for ADHD and settled life is not. Consider consumer technology in the modern industrial world instead of rural Kenya or America in 2022. Consider what outlets a kid with ADHD would have had access to years ago and what he has access to now. How can a kid direct his or her energy today compared to 30 or 30,000 years ago?
- 30,000 years ago: Nature, foraging, hunting, exploring the surroundings, swimming, climbing, fighting, playing, learning about plants, making tools.
- 30 years ago: TV, video/computer games, classmates, friends, outside unstructured play, sports.
- Today: social media, smartphones, computers, tablets, TV, video/computer games, inside play, multiplayer games, playdates, travel sports.
Technology and ADHD
Today, you’d be hard pressed in many areas to find kids playing outside, let alone kids playing without any adult supervision. Their lives are manicured and curated. They have fewer “natural” outlets for their attention and far more artificial or technological outlets. And those technological outlets like video games and social media and smartphones are engineered to trigger the kind of “easy” dopamine hits that people with ADHD are so attracted to.
It’s probably not that tech increases ADHD. It’s that for kids with ADHD or a predisposition toward it, technology and social media create a self-reinforcing outlet, an easy source of dopamine without much effort, that can lead to ruin. Tech can certainly worsen ADHD. Technology use, especially at nighttime, has been shown to worsen sleep quality and quantity. This effect is pronounced in kids with ADHD. How much sleep a person gets has a direct link to ADHD symptoms. Technology use is also replacing physical activity, another risk factor for ADHD. The less you move, the less you play, the less you engage in intense physical activity, the more likely your ADHD is to express itself.
And as with anything, the problem with ADHD is how it expresses itself. Are you ignoring all responsibilities in life and playing an open world RPG video game for 15 hours straight as your life crumbles around you? That’s a problem. Are you playing an open world RPG video game for 15 hours straight while thousands of paying subscribers watch you? That’s a little different. You’re doing something you love and making income off of it. The material issues with excessive artificial light exposure and staying inactive sitting on a couch and avoiding any natural light still apply, but the life outcome result of being a video game streamer is superior to the outcome of just being a gamer.
As you can see, there’s a lot of nuance here. How ADHD is expressed differs a lot, even if it looks the same to an outsider. One major misconception of ADHD is that it prevents you from focusing on anything. No, what it does is make it harder to focus on anything that doesn’t grab you. If there’s drudgery involved, if it’s a slog, someone with ADHD will have trouble sticking with it. Remember how dopamine helps people endure tough situations, like in intense exercise? If dopamine doesn’t hit as hard (as happens with many people who have ADHD), drudgery will be harder to endure. Someone with ADHD can go into hyper focused mode if they’re really engaged with something.
The problem is that drudgery is part of life. Many things worth doing and worth learning require some level of drudgery before they start getting interesting or paying off. Technology, to sum up, can worsen ADHD and make overcoming that drudgery to get to the good stuff much harder:
- It can interfere with sleep, and sleep deprivation is a risk factor for ADHD.
- It can be too easy a dopamine outlet, taking focus away from more meaningful and productive pursuits.
- It can take up quality time a person would otherwise spend being physically active, which has been shown to improve cognitive and executive function in ADHD.
People with ADHD want action. They need acute bouts of intense activity and engagement. That used to happen all the time in the real world simply as part of growing up and living. In today’s more indoor, curated, low-energy, arguably neutered lifestyle, real life action is hard to come by. The most reliable way now for your average person with ADHD to get the same mental fix is through technology: video games, social media, Youtube, TikTok, messaging apps.
That’s the hurdle you have to leap to lessen the negative effects of technology in ADHD. You need to bring adventure back into your life. You need physical activity. You need competition. You need intensity and, perhaps even a little danger.
Do you have ADHD or know someone who does? How has technology affected their outcomes?
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