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Is The Internet Giving Us All ADHD Symptoms?

Tell me if this scenario sounds familiar to you:Screen Shot 2015-03-30 at 4.10.03 PM

You get into work. You’re feeling productive. You’ve powered through approximately three emails/order forms/whatever qualifies as progress in your particular industry when — BAM — your best friend signs onto Gchat and sends you a video of a dachshund puppy getting pushed around in a tiny shopping cart.

No big deal! — you think. You will return to emails in approximately five seconds, right after you check Facebook and answer that email your mom sent you about the date of your cousin’s wedding. But on Facebook, someone has posted a really interesting article about J. Crew, which reminds you (about two sentences in) that you wanted to check J. Crew’s site real quick to see if it was spring sale time yet, which — oh hey! Push notification from Instagram!

It’s no secret that the Internet presents a bevy of distractions. Many of us have grudgingly accepted perpetual scatterbrain as a hallmark of modern life, as unavoidable as Facebook and the Kardashians. But in a lecture at SXSW last week, University of Chicago psychologist Michael Pietrus floated a provocative hypothesis: Maybe these aren’t just Internet-age annoyances but something approaching an actual pathology. Maybe the Internet is giving us all the symptoms of ADHD.

“We are not saying that Internet technologies and social media are directly causing ADHD,” Pietrus cautions. But the Internet, he says, “can impair functioning in a variety of ways … that can mimic and in some cases exacerbate underlying attention problems.”

 ADHD, or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, is one of the great specters of 21st-century psychology. For parents of children who have it — and more than 1 in 10 do, per the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention — ADHD is a behavioral scourge, making their kids impatient, restless, impulsive and easily bored. For adults who have it — an estimated 4.4 percent — the disorder can make it difficult to concentrate on one thing for any period of time. Adults with ADHD, unlike kids, usually aren’t “hyperactive” in the conventional sense. But they can be compulsive, easily distracted, easily bored. They lose interest halfway through reading an article or completing a task.

They’re “hardwired for novelty seeking,” Pietrus said — much like your average Internet junkie, opening 150 tabs at a time and clutching his smartphone in jittery hands.

After all, when you think about it, the Internet essentially promises two things: instant gratification and an endless, varied, hyper-stimulating buffet of entertainment and information options. If you don’t like one thing within the first five seconds, you can (and, science says, do) jump to something else.

The Internet, it turns out, incentivizes the exact types of behaviors and thought processes that characterize ADHD.

The question now is whether the symptoms of compulsive Internet use and the symptoms of ADHD share any deeper commonalities. Researchers have, it’s worth noting, linked the two before: ADHD is a common “comorbidity,” or accompanying condition, of Internet addiction, which means that people who use the Internet excessively are likely to also have symptoms of ADHD.

ADHD rates, much like Internet use, are also inexplicably up over the past 10 years: from 7.8 percent of kids in 2003 to 11 percent in 2011, the last year the CDC measured.

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