Technology-Attention Disorder Link?

A St Maarten friend posted the blog link below on Facebook, and that got me thinking…

What is the link between attention disorders and electronic gadgetry such as tablet devices and smart phones?

To quickly summarize, Margaret Rock’s post addresses a “theory” of a correlation between ADD/ADHD and the increased use of tablets/iPads and smart phones by young children. Although the blogger—a computer “generalist”–stresses the “correlation” of the two and makes a rather feeble attempt at cautioning against “causation” of attention disorders by early use of electronic devices, the overall effect of the post leaves the reader with the impression that she leans strongly toward causation.

Interesting read…but as a researcher and educational practitioner, I would put more emphasis on the “correlation” rather than jumping to “causation.” The fact is that children with attention disorders have difficulty focusing. That electronic devices can hold their attention–for a considerable length of time!–should be a focus for helping them to concentrate on academics and social interactions; that is, the devices should be viewed as potential tools to teach focus, not demonized as a causal factor that should be removed because technology encourages focus in one type of activity.

Here in the island country of St Maarten, there are “electronic” means other than tablets and smart phones that are being used to help children–and even adults–learn to focus. One technique (Interactive Metronome) is employed by Ms. Myrna Richardson; a different and more expensive technique is used by Dr. Kurt Vreeman. Both individuals’ programs employ biofeedback via computer, and these programs have been shown to transfer to general life activities.

The key to transfer, however, is self-awareness–if I can focus on this electronic task by doing X, then I can adapt what I learned to do X to help me focus on other tasks. So when we help an individual learn a skill and how to transfer that skill academics or social interactions, we are helping that individual to function more effectively in the world they live in. Well-trained special education teachers, and interested general education teachers, have been using self-awareness techniques for decades, albeit without electronic intervention. However, the power of technology can help.

Strongly supported by research, the truth is that attention problems have many correlates–food additives, environmental factors, brain injury, geometric advances in technology, family, community, poverty–and some of those factors affect people with a genetic predisposition to attention disorders more strongly than those without such predisposition. If several correlates are involved and each exerts a little bit of influence, the collective effect may manifest as attention problems.

Another truth is that, although there may be an actual rise in the incidence of attention disorders because of these factors, part of the increase may be due to greater general awareness–especially on the part of medical and psychological professionals who are now better trained to look for attention problems, especially in children. A paper by Drs. Heidi M. Feldman and Michael I. Reiff, published in the February 27, 2014 issue of the New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM), describes some of the factors:

Family, twin, and adoption studies provide evidence that ADHD has a genetic component. Heritability has been estimated at 76%.  Metaanalyses of candidate-gene association studies have shown strong associations between ADHD and several genes involved in dopamine and serotonin pathways.  Multiple genes, each with a small effect, may together mediate genetic vulnerability.  Nongenetic factors (e.g., maternal smoking during pregnancy or exposure to environmental lead or polychlorinated biphenyls) may also interact with genetic predisposition in the pathogenesis of ADHD. (p. 838)

The authors further indicate the difficulty with attention disorder diagnosis because of symptoms that are also indicative of depression, anxiety, and learning and/or behavior disorders. Their international meta-analytical study shows strong evidence that behavioral therapy or behavioral intervention processes work best to encourage greater focus and countering “non-attention” behaviors–not only within academic programs but also in family therapy approaches.

Behavioral interventions have been recommended for children with behavioral problems for decades, and continues to be the most effective treatment. Among the behaviors that should be addressed, according to the authors, are social interaction and communication topics, as well as encouragement of sustained focus. To sustain focus, the child and adults (parents, teachers, and other significant adults in the child’s life) need to understand how to help the child identify distractors and learn to avoid or ignore them.

As a former teacher of children with behavioral and emotional problems, I can attest to how time-consuming this process of re-teaching behaviors can be. “Re-teaching” because the child has figured out coping behaviors on his/her own and has been using them to avoid or tone down the frustration that accompanies fruitless attempts to “be good” or “pay attention.” Learning theory has been stressing for years how difficult it is to unlearn behaviors, or to replace “old learning” with new information. Thus, the added focus of teaching parents and classroom teachers to identify behaviors and communicate with the child is not for those who want a quick change in children but instead seek positive progress. Children for whom stimulant or non-stimulant pharmaceuticals are prescribed need time and patience to unlearn the coping skills (often manifesting as inappropriate behavior) associated with their disorders.

All of the information contained in the cited blog is neither surprising nor terribly new. The Rock blog post is based on unanalyzed “facts” that have been strung together to “prove” a theory that electronic devices “cause” attention disorders—specifically ADD/ADHD. By way of contrast, the published NEJM meta-analysis also contained little new information, but it used the outcomes of others’ published research on gene expression to systematically and thoroughly determine the factors that have been most strongly associated with ADHD during the past decade; thus forming a composite for identifying and treating individuals with the disorders.

The core problem with attention disorders is the inability to focus. Finding something that a child can focus on is difficult and time-consuming. Yet finding this elusive “something” is important for successful behavioral intervention. The very fact that many children with attention problems are able to concentrate on technology is what is important. Taking what we know about what makes them concentrate on the devices and using what we observe to encourage the same focus ability to daily academic and the living/social situations is the goal.

As a special education educator with a recently-confirmed (about 1.5 years ago) diagnosis of ADHD, I can attest to the fact that my ADHD is probably what made me successful in a classes of 15 children with mild-to-moderate and 8 children with moderate-to-severe learning, behavioral, and emotional issues. Each student in any of my classes was at a different level of reading, math, communication, and behavior. That means that at any one time I had to pay attention to up to 15 different levels of skills in the major academic areas, as well as up to 15 different levels of unique behaviors associated with each child within the distinct academics as well as social interaction and personal behavioral response areas. Even with paraprofessionals in the classroom, this is no easy feat. The most successful regular classroom teachers are also the most observant of behavior changes; yet they would probably have difficulty with an environment that, on paper, looked chaotic but was, in fact, highly orchestrated and constantly monitored.

The need to be aware of everything at the same time focused me. In my personal life, I had to be doing several things at the same time and constantly involved in a variety of social groups to give the semblance of normal behavior. For me, it was computers that helped me learn to focus on a single “task,” especially once all the masters-level courses for my three teacher certifications were completed and I needed something to occupy my attention. The coursework helped me learn about all the latest behavioral learning techniques and teaching methodologies so that I finally learned how to study. But the logic and mathematical simplicity of computer programming allowed me to focus all I had learned about teaching and learning on myself. Had I not learned to focus on computers, I would not have been able to transfer that ability to focus on doctoral study.

Long before I left the classroom teaching, I was already trying to incorporate the use of the nascent personal computer (circa 1980) into my students’ learning. For those students who profited academically from the new technology, behavioral change came faster and stronger. For those who were less fascinated by the budding technology, other ways to focus attention were explored—much like what I had been doing for the previous eight years: find the area of interest or strength and use the skills to support academic progress.

Be observant and find the key.

That the use of technological devices causes the release of endorphins (see Rock blog) is not a bad thing, if it can be used in learning to sustain focus. When we enjoy doing something, those pleasure chemicals are released into our brains and we learn more about that “something” because we can focus. Focus gives us pleasure as we learn, and we learn that learning can be pleasurable because we enjoy what we are doing. This is the outcome educators and psychologists seek when we look for ways to motivate students and clients.

I could go on, but I’ve already allowed my ADHD to lead my thinking into divergent areas… There is so much that we know about learning and motivation and attention and cognition and distractors and behaviors, etc.  Part of the problem is that we often become too focused on a single factor or correlation, then forget about all the other variables that influence attention…



About DrEMiller

Certified Zentangle Teacher (CZT). Home: Sint Maarten. K-12 teacher for 13 years (Special Education for 10 years); Post-secondary educator since 2002; Education consulting since 1995. When teaching, held teaching certificates in K-12 special education, reading specialist; and secondary social studies. Doctorate: Educational Psychology Programmer/analyst for 10 years, including project management and training of corporate execs.
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