Joe, a 17-year-old higher-secondary student was brought into the clinic for counselling. According to his parents, he used to skip classes, and of late, had stopped going to school altogether. Joe would behave strangely, get furious at the slightest provocation, act in a hostile manner with the rest of the family, and show irregular eating and sleeping patterns. Joe, however, had a different story to tell. He narrated his terrible feelings of isolation due to “blaming’ and accusations” by the family, including by members of the extended family. He bewailed his fate, saying how he was “buried under admonitions, advice, and warnings” from older family members.
Many a time, he thought of leaving home but had no means to support himself and had no clarity about where to go and what to do. On closer examination, it was revealed that Joe had a serious dependence issue on the Internet and relational addiction. Both these addictions had totally destroyed his self-worth and consequently diminished his social interaction, even within the family.
The other fallout was his inability to focus on anything, especially on academic matters. Joe could not attend to what was going on in the classroom and he hated academic work so much that he wouldn’t dare open his text books! He simply gave up any attempt to focus on academia as he knew he just couldn’t bring himself to do that.
The story of Joe is not an exception any more. There are many more cases of adolescents who turn out to be affected by ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder) of a different kind. Clinical observation and scientific research point to the over-stimulation of the senses by modern gadgets as the main cause. In an age of fast-paced technology and social media, it is no wonder that adults — let alone children — are themselves unable to focus their attention easily.
Think about how much stimulation we are exposed to daily, and how much it impacts our world. Between smartphones, iPads, emails, TV, DVRs, internet, social media, and so on our brain’s neurons are firing on all cylinders all day long.
Our children are experiencing the same stimulation while developmentally, they are just beginning to learn how to organise information and pay attention. Bombarded with such excessive stimulation and distraction, the children are not disposed to focusing on subjects that may not be as interesting or instantly gratifying as other subjects.
We need to bear in mind the distinction between a child who is struggling with ADHD and a child who is struggling to focus due to technological overload. Children living with ADHD need mental stimulation and arousal which is why they are given stimulants to help them focus in the classroom. They can easily focus on certain things such as video games and television because these things provide them instant gratification, keep them thrilled and dynamic, and give them a “hit” of dopamine that keeps them enthralled.
On the other hand, children who simply spend large amounts of time with electronic gadgets have trained their brain to receive heightened stimulation and the accompanying dopamine boosts. They are, therefore, susceptible to similar symptoms of a child with ADHD, such as difficulty attending to classroom instructions and chores.
ADHD is the most commonly diagnosed behavioural disorder among children and its frequency has risen rapidly. There is every likelihood that some of these children are victims of technology overload and exhaustion. Before taking them in for psychiatric evaluation or putting them on medication, it is well worth trying the following simple modifications in their environment.
Ø Monitor Screen Time: How much time the child spends on these screens — smartphones, Tabs, TV? These screens are loaded with information, movement, colour, and hyper-stimulation. Set strict daily time limits, of say 30–45 minutes, after homework and daily chores. After the time limit, join the child to engage with something that interests him/her.
Ø Relax the Mind: Teach your children relaxation and deep breathing methods to help increase their focus and mind control. Play some soft instrumental music in the background to help their brain to learn to focus.
Ø Make the Bedroom a Stimulus-Free Zone: A lot of teens relax before bed by texting on their phones which causes sleep deprivation and fatigue. Sound sleep is one of the most effective tools for improving attention and focus. Take the TV, computer, and smartphone out of the bedroom. Set time limits for your child to wind down and help them by lowering noise levels, dimming the lights, and doing relaxing activities.
Ø Teach Delayed Gratification: Nowadays kids want instant satisfaction, and when they don’t get it, they lose focus and attention and grow impatient. Delayed gratification is a life skill that will help your child persevere and remain focused on goals for which the returns are not immediate. It is an essential ability that will help your child gain success in life. Help identify both short- and long-term goals with your child, and encourage your child to work towards them.
Parents must be prepared to meet resistance from their child. However, both parents must back the action plan solidly. Early introduction of digital discipline will be more enforceable and beneficial to all.