Digital media use linked to behavioral problems in kids

Are children who spend lots of time using digital devices prone to psychiatric problems? A team of USC scientists says yes in a new study that appears today in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

Teens who are heavy users of digital devices are twice as likely as infrequent users to show symptoms of attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), the study finds. The association is persistent as researchers tracked nearly 2,600 teenagers for two years.

The study focuses on the mental health consequences of a new generation of ubiquitous digital diversions, including social media, streaming video, text messaging, music downloads and online chatrooms, among others. It differs from previous research that linked use of TV or video games to the illness.

"What's new is that previous studies on this topic were done many years ago, when social media, mobile phones, tablets and mobile apps didn't exist," said Adam Leventhal, professor of preventive medicine and psychology and director of the USC Health, Emotion and Addiction Laboratory at the Keck School of Medicine of USC.

"New, mobile technologies can provide fast, high-intensity stimulation accessible all day, which has increased digital media exposure far beyond what's been studied before," he said.

The findings have ramifications for parents, schools, technology companies and pediatricians concerned that tech-dependent teens are driven to distraction -- or worse. For example, a recent survey by nonprofit Common Sense Media showed teens spend about one-third of their day -- nearly nine hours -- using online media. A separate survey published last month by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows 43 percent of high school students used digital media three or more hours per day. While the popularity of digital media in kids is well known, the impacts are not.

In the USC study, the scientists began with 4,100 eligible students, ages 15 and 16 years, across 10 public highs schools in Los Angeles County. The schools represented mixed demographic and socioeconomic status, from South L.A. to the San Fernando Valley to the San Gabriel Valley. The researchers focused on teens because adolescence marks a moment for ADHD onset and unfettered access to digital media, Leventhal explained.