Have you ever thought about what’s really happening when teens are watching television, waiting for an appointment in an exam room, sitting in a classroom or talking to you? Most likely, it’s not just that one thing. Look carefully and you’ll see that our preteens and teens are absolute masters at multi-tasking.

Watching television exclusively rarely happens, nor does talking to you directly. Typically, while watching a movie on the TV (which by the way is becoming almost extinct for many) that same guy may be on his laptop or iPad and also texting or checking texts. Just when you think there is no way that the teen can be listening to you, he proves you wrong by answering a question that you didn’t think he heard, right? Amazing how they possess the ability to move back and forth from one type of task to another. Seems great; but, many of us, who did not grow up in the tech era, have distinct difficulty wrapping our heads around what is really happening and what possible ripple effects this may have on our previously accepted behavioral and societal norms.

So let’s take this a little further. If someone is not looking at us, can they really be paying attention? To learn something, must a child stay on task for 25 minutes at a time? At 5 years, we expect a child’s attention span to be about 10-15 minutes (that’s the basic standard of about 2 to 3 minutes of attention per year of age); by 12 years that length has doubled. For most individuals, there seems to be little real growth in the length after that, even into adulthood. However, with rapidly moving and exciting programs available electronically, the needed attention span may be only a few seconds because of the “machine gun-like” rapid-fire movement of the tasks.

Over the last 20 plus years, Adele Diamond, Russell Barkley, Doug Cantwell and other researchers in attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) have spoken about executive function and working memory as the major deficits in the disorder. As Dr. Diamond hypothesizes, individuals with ADHD-I (the inattentive type of ADHD) have sluggish “cognitive tempo.” Thus, they are easily bored. Perhaps, changing the tempo of presentations may prevent that boredom and improve the performance of the child. Something that can keep the adrenaline (or dopamine) going improves the attention span in those with ADHD. Maybe that is true of all children. Perhaps children, in general, are better able to engage when their adrenaline is peaked. This would explain the incredible success and even addiction that many children and adults, for that matter, have for video games. The tempo is rapid fire; risks are there; adrenaline is up and so the hook is there that makes one able to stay with something for hours without boredom.

Sitting, talking and watching TV, individually are typically slow paced tasks. Multi-tasking is a way for someone to stay engaged without boredom. This phenomenon of multi-tasking when faced with conventionally slow placed tasks seems pervasive in much of the teen population and may increase their ability to have sustained attention to the task at hand.

We know in the past the “normal and respectful” way to be was to look a person in the eye and certainly NOT to do something else when you are talking to that person. Fast-forward to now…really fast, and perhaps the norm is changing.

The diagnosis of ADHD is on the rise. There has been an explosion of medication use and alternative therapies created for the treatment of this disorder.

Don’t misconstrue my comments to mean that I don’t agree with using medication for the treatment of ADHD. ADHD is a real disorder and often individuals need medication to help in its treatment. But understand that, with the growing use of technology occupying the majority of our children’s waking lives, if our society continues to try to educate children in the same manner that we have in the past, we may be facing an ever-increasing number of children who meet the criteria for ADHD. Perhaps, we need to consider incorporating learning into different formats and look more closely at how we can really hold the attention span of our children. As we change as a society, we may need to take a hard look at the way we teach and the way we define what is really ADHD.

Susan Buttross, MD, FAAP
Professor of Pediatrics
Developmental and Behavioral Pediatrics
University of Mississippi Medical Center

Posted by Deborah Ann Mulligan, M.D.