TL;DR: Internet Use and “ADD”

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Where’s my soapbox? Oh, there it is. Ok:

We all have some kind of ADD now. We all need to stop being mean to each other about it. And we all need to find ways to turn it around because it’s a total bummer and I don’t want my generation to turn into a bunch of over-medicated zombie people.

The DSM V gives the behavioral disorder known as Attention Deficit (Hyperactivity) Disorder the following criteria:

  1. Often does not give close attention to details or makes careless mistakes in schoolwork, work, or other activities (e.g., overlooks or misses details, work is inaccurate)
  2. Often has difficulty sustaining attention in tasks or play activities (e.g., has difficulty remaining focused during lectures, conversations, or reading lengthy writings).
  3. Often does not seem to listen when spoken to directly (e.g., mind seems elsewhere, even in the absence of any obvious distraction)
  4. Often does not follow through on instructions and fails to finish schoolwork, chores, or duties in the workplace (e.g., starts tasks but quickly loses focus and is easily sidetracked; fails to finish schoolwork, household chores, or tasks in the workplace)
  5. Often has difficulty organizing tasks and activities (e.g., difficulty managing sequential tasks; difficulty keeping materials and belongings in order; messy, disorganized, work; poor time management; tends to fail to meet deadlines)
  6. Often avoids, dislikes, or is reluctant to engage in tasks that require sustained mental effort (e.g., schoolwork or homework; for older adolescents and adults, preparing reports, completing forms, or reviewing lengthy papers).
  7. Often loses things needed for tasks and activities (e.g., school materials, pencils, books, tools, wallets, keys, paperwork, eyeglasses, or mobile telephones)
  8. Is often easily distracted by extraneous stimuli (for older adolescents and adults, may include unrelated thoughts).
  9. Is often forgetful in daily activities (e.g., chores, running errands; for older adolescents and adults, returning calls, paying bills, keeping appointments)

Of the nine criteria listed above, a patient need display 6 or more for 6 months to be diagnosed with ADD. The New York Times reports a few different statistics on the recent rise of ADD including: 11% of school age children are diagnosed, 1 in 5 high school age boys are diagnosed, etc.

There are a plethora of opinions about why this problem, perceived or real, is on the incline. Some think a reduced stigma in psychotherapy encourages more people to seek help, leading to an influx of diagnoses. Readers of Allen Francis’ Saving Normal might say that drug-pushing Pharmaceutical companies are to blame. It is also not uncommon for those on medication to be accused of faking. And there are a few hippie weirdos out there who point to Food Inc. All of these theories have their own level of credibility (some more than others), but I’m going to ditch them all and make a totally non-credible undergraduate-level hypothesis based on surface-level investigation, Google, personal experience, and one book I read one time. I took Psych 101 in Community College, so I’m going to make a sweeping diagnosis on everyone who will ever read this page. Stay tuned.

Personal Experience

I always thought the people I knew who were diagnosed with Adult ADD were gaming the system; thought they were trying to get one over on their doctors so they could have a leg-up during finals week or write a term paper in one weekend. Once my friends entered the work force, some continued taking ADD meds to set the world on fire, and my opinion shifted. I thought, Why should it be easier for them when it’s so hard for the rest of us? Because, in my own experience, it is hard for the rest of us. I could continue to blame people for exploiting a disorder to function more productively, or I could embrace that maybe we all have it, to varying degrees.

Science!

I’m not good with all the science-y stuff, but luckily I don’t have to be. Nicholas Carr wrote a little book called The Shallows that lays it all out and, besides being a little gratuitously repetitious, it’s a good read. Over-simplification time: The book makes the case that increased exposure to the Internet is fundamentally changing the way our brains work. He explains in detail the theories of plasticity of our neurons and brain patterns, and their susceptibility to change throughout our lives due to the habits we form. In the now out-dated print culture, experience with books and other print media created a population of people capable of more prolonged attention (generally speaking). Reading was good exercise for the brain, like little brainy push-ups, keeping it focused in a linear way on a specific task, and making prolonged attention to other tasks (work, homework, life stuff) easier.

Television came in and stirred the pot a little, but the Internet is what screwed it all up for everybody. In the same way reading trained the brain to pay attention, interacting with the Internet trains the brain to follow tangents. Hyperlinks, multiple tabs, and second screen interaction all contribute to this phenomenon in the same way. If I haven’t lost you yet, maybe you’re beginning to see the problem. Because our minds are reshaping to acclimate to the tools we use (computers, smart phones, etc.), we are suffering from attention problems and memory loss. You can’t hyperlink your way through real life if you want to have successful relationships and careers.

In his article for the Huffington Post, Dr. Mark Goulston says, “When your thinking is interrupted by your brain, you’ve got real ADD. When it’s interrupted by the world, you just have trouble saying ‘no.’” I say nay, Dr. Goulston. More specifically, I say since we’ve trained our brains out of the ability of saying “no,” your distinction is imperceptible. Using words like “pseudo-ADD” does not change the experience of people who live in a world that demands their attention while their mind simultaneously demands distraction.

Patronizing Each Other is Getting Us Nowhere

In researching this post I came across a multitude of articles, not unlike Mark Goulston’s, that take a decidedly condescending tone when talking about “ADD fakers” (although they fail to accurately define the difference between them and their non-faking-counterparts). I was interested, though unsurprised, to see the authors of such articles attributed attention problems to shortcomings on the behalf of the spacey person. Lori Day writes, rather facetiously, “I know, I know, it’s all to be blamed on our fast-paced, screen media-saturated, multi-tasking lifestyles. We can’t help it. There’s just too much going on.” Well, excuse me Miss Day. I didn’t mean to bore you.

My guess is, this harsh attitude is the result of two completely separate viewpoints. Theory Number One: People are frustrated with their own attention deficits, but do not use a label like “ADD” to excuse their behavior and look down on those who they think do so. Theory Number Two: Neuroplasticity may account for the ongoing change of our brains, but lots of habits (good and bad) are formed in childhood. These attention problems may be generational, with younger people facing more obstacles to their productivity because they did not develop more focused habits as kids (they were too busy with other stuff) while their older counterparts may be more disciplined and not-so-understanding.

Get over it.

Stop implying that people are faking having ADD or saying things like pseudo-ADD and listen (look?) up. We need to drop this whole label, non-label nonsense and get to the crux of the issue. Unless we all throw down our digital devices in a show of solidarity (hahahaha), this is the new normal. We need to find ways to combat the attention problems that affect our careers and personal lives, instead of being condescending to each other or worse, taking meds for it. This is my one and only disclaimer for this post: I can’t say that meds don’t help anybody, because maybe they do. But then again, I don’t think I know anybody with a form of ADD that wouldn’t benefit from some alternative treatment.

Concentration and extended focus are important for obvious reasons.  The ability to pay attention leads to productivity at school and in the workplace (read: more $$$).  But there are more important things at stake here.  As a society we are moving rapidly toward a highly digitized world, and shorter attention spans are only the tip of the iceberg.  Institutions founded on the values of print culture are suffering, becoming more obsolete and functioning poorly.  It takes a certain kind of mind to contemplate complex problems like a broken political structure, a failing education system, and unsustainable energy consumption across the globe.  We all need to strive for this certain kind of mind, before we lose ourselves to the distractions completely.

I have a point I promise. I read an awesome article on Lifehacker about rebuilding your attention span. After a few clicks I found a bunch more articles that deal with the same issue. We need to combat the impact the internet is having on our brains – making us inattentive, forgetful, anxious, unmotivated, and unproductive – in order to lead happier, healthier lives. We can do this. But forming healthier habits isn’t going to happen over night, and although I think it’s possible it would definitely require a lot of effort, and…

Oh, look, a video.

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