Distracted child or ADHD?

You mentioned in your new book , Smart Parenting, Smarter Kids, that kids with ADD or ADHD have a problem shifting their attention, or maintaining their attention.  Does that imply that an ability to focus on one task can still be called ADD or ADHD? Would that include attention given to video games and screens in general?

Hend, Cairo, Egypt

Hend, This is a great question. More and more parents are wondering - what is the impact of all these screens on our kids' ability to focus? As we start to unpack the answer to this question, it helps to distinguish between ADD/ADHD and attention problems. There are children who have attention problems who do not necessarily have ADD or ADHD. I am convinced that ADD/ADHD are "hard-wired" conditions while distraction can, and often is, soft-wired, ie. shaped by experience. Distinguishing the two takes a very thorough evaluation.

Hard wired: ADD/ADHD and the brain

Brain research has identified both anatomical and brain chemistry differences in children and youth who are ADD or ADHD.  For example, there are both structural and functional differences in areas of the prefrontal cortex where impulse control resides. In addition, researchers have discovered that children with the hyperactive form of ADD have double the amount of the neurotransmitter glutamate and lower levels of GABA, a chemical that acts as a set of brakes in the brain.

Soft wired: Conditioned for distraction

While ADD and ADHD may be hard wired, there is a growing concern that technology is creating a generation of "distracted kids." While these kids aren’t necessarily “wired differently” they are perpetually responding to texts, playing video games, multi-tasking and spending a great deal of their waking hours in front of screens. Some of those children are being mistakenly identified as ADD or ADHD. 

Learning to focus

The good news is that we can do a lot to help "distracted kids" learn how to focus. Our brain gets really good at whatever it does a lot of. The brains of many tech-heavy kids are being conditioned to expect instant rewards and constant stimulation. For these kids, reading a book or solving a complex math problem can be a bit underwhelming to say the least. Of course, being engaged and entertained by technology is not inherently a bad thing for kids. But we need to make sure that kids' brains have ample opportunities to practice quiet, reflective, and focused thinking as well. 

Here are some tips for managing the multitasking generation that may be helpful as you try to help your child practice focused attention.

Thanks, 

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Dr. Dave Walsh