The XX Factor

ADHD Diagnoses Increase in an Age of Distraction 

What’s behind the uptick in ADHD diagnoses in children?

Photo by Christophe Archambault/AFP/Getty Images.

A new study from the March/April edition of Academic Pediatrics reports that the number of American children diagnosed with ADHD in doctors’ offices reached 10.4 million in 2010—a 66 percent increase from 2000, when the number was 6.2 million. The diagnosis now appears in 14 percent of the under-18 population of the United States, up from 9 percent in 2000.

Study author Craig Garfield, a professor and pediatrician, also followed trends in ADHD treatment between 2000 and 2010, mapping the frequency with which certain drugs were prescribed onto the release of public health advisories from the FDA. He found that the use of psychostimulants like Ritalin declined by 9 percent over the decade, possibly because FDA reports had roused concerns about the pills’ side effects (including suicidal ideation and cardiac problems—though recent experiments have failed to substantiate that last fear).

Moreover, the study showed that specialists, rather than general pediatricians, were increasingly beginning to shoulder the responsibility of treating and managing kids with ADHD. While this development speaks to the rising quality of care, it may also be opening a gap between families that can afford psychiatric services for their ADHD children and those that can’t.

For his part, Garfield attributes the rise in ADHD cases to greater awareness among doctors, parents, and teachers. On the margins, he says, ADHD can be hard to distinguish from a typical bout of childish hyperactivity. But over time pediatricians can develop a feel for the “norm” and what lies outside it.

This assumes that there was not an actual increase in the number of people with ADHD between 2000 and 2010—just better diagnosis. But if incidence is actually on the rise, perhaps the Internet bears some responsibility for the apparent uptick? Many argue that constant exposure to Web devices erodes our ability to focus and makes us jumpy and impatient. Garfield observes that mental disorder is often a question of degree. Might incessant Internet use, combined with a natural tendency towards hyperactivity and distraction, be pushing more kids over the ADHD line?

Garfield demurs: It’s too soon to tell. Our brains have evolved over thousands of years—and we’ve battled attention and impulsivity issues, well, forever. No doubt, some children are bound to struggle with ADHD regardless of their environment. Still. “Would the constant flow of digital information exacerbate the problem? Actually, that would make an interesting experiment,” he mused.

Stay tuned, if you can.