Frequent use of social media has recently been linked with symptoms of attention deficit and hyperactivity disorder ( ADHD) among adolescents.
A new study stops short of making a claim that heavy social media use actually causes ADHD, or that the symptoms observed in the study constitute an official diagnosis. But it is one more reason to recognise that social media use among teens can also have a serious downside.
Researchers from California used data from a 2015 survey to evaluate the digital habits and behaviours of more than 2,500 teens aged 15 and 16 over the course of two years.
Critically, none of the adolescents were classified as having ADHD related symptoms at the start of the study, at least according to criteria outlined in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.
For some, that all changed over the following months.
Rather than a lack of attention, those with the disorder have a hard time controlling their focus, allowing their mind to either be absorbed completely by a task, or wander easily through minor distractions.
It's hard to pin down exact numbers, but it's fair to estimate that around 7 percent of children have the condition.
But there's every chance that other factors could be playing a role in the rising prevalence of the condition, with some research nodding rather suggestively to changes in how we digest our media.
Most of the research to date has dealt largely with television and video games. This analysis is different.
"It's one of the first studies to look at modern digital media and ADHD risk," University of Southern California psychologist Adam Leventhal told Rhitu Chatterjee at NPR.
Roughly half of the teenagers in the study indicated they checked their social media multiple times a day, making it by far the most common form of media activity.
Other activities measured included texting, streaming videos, or listening to music online. Around 50 of the teens surveyed engaged in every one of the 14 examples frequently throughout their day.
In follow up measurements taken every six months, an increasing number of adolescents showed ADHD-related symptoms. Significantly, these correlated with frequent social media use.
This isn't to say the social media use was causing the symptoms, or that the adolescents even had the condition. It's also important to remember these factors were self-reported.
But difficulties finishing or organising tasks or forgetting responsibilities are problems no matter which way you look at it, and if checking your social media frequently does play a role in at least exacerbating the problem, it warrants further investigation.
The possibility is concerning, if not all that surprising. Digital media competes for our attention in new and colourful ways, and most of us aren't prepared for the onslaught of information.
Throw into the mix the fact that social aspects of our media diet could also be having other ill effects – especially on developing minds – and we have the makings of a growing mental health crisis.
None of this should imply we need to ban our kids from using social media.
For one thing, good luck with that! But digital media's social side is here to stay, and adolescents need to learn how to manage their media consumption, especially if they're predisposed to ADHD.
An editorial by University of Michigan paediatrician Jenny Radesky commenting on the study ends with some good advice.
"Prioritise activities that promote adolescent executive functioning and well-being, including sleep, physical activity, distraction-free homework, and positive interactions with family and friends," she writes.
In other words, we should all be paying more attention.
This research was published in JAMA.