Is the Internet giving us all ADHD?

In a lecture at SXSW last week, University of Chicago psychologist Michael Pietrus floated a provocative hypothesis: 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.”

The Web certainly may cause ADHD-like symptoms, and it could exacerbate the disorder in children and adults who suffer from it already … but there’s no evidence that Internet use could actually cause an otherwise healthy person to develop the disorder. After all, ADHD is believed to have a range of underlying genetic causes, things you couldn’t just “catch” from a computer screen.

There’s even some research, in fact, that the Internet could actually help people with attention disorders. Whatever the exact relationship between the Internet and ADHD, Pietrus says it is important to realize that pushing back against these symptoms requires a careful, intentional strategy. There’s a lot of research that suggests mindfulness and meditation could help people sustain their attention, even online; Pietrus also suggests techniques like expressive writing or “chunking,” which helps short-term information stick in your mind.

“The biggest thing is to increase awareness and understanding of what social media and technology are doing to us,” he said. “Once we acknowledge the potential effects on our brains, we can make better-informed choices about our actions and behavioral patterns.”

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