Addicted to distraction? a recent New York Times opinion piece by Tony Schwartz:

Addiction is the relentless pull to a substance or an activity that becomes so compulsive it ultimately interferes with everyday life. By that definition, nearly everyone I know is addicted in some measure to the Internet. It has arguably replaced work itself as our most socially sanctioned addiction.

I would like to disagree with this claim.

I would like to, but I really can’t. It has the ring of truth.

Schwartz’s essay is about adults, but educators think immediately about the ever-increasing number of students diagnosed with Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD) or Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). According to the National Institute of Mental Health,

ADHD is one of the most common childhood disorders and can continue through adolescence and into adulthood. The average age of onset is 7 years old.

ADHD affects about 4.1% American adults age 18 years and older in a given year. The disorder affects 9.0% of American children age 13 to 18 years. Boys are four times at risk than girls.

Studies show that the number of children being diagnosed with ADHD is increasing, but it is unclear why.

OK, that’s a little vague, isn’t? Right after the rather precise “9.0% of American children age 13 to 18” comes the red flag of “studies show…” Even without those studies, every long-term teacher knows in their heart that it’s true. Some of this increase must come from increased diagnosis (accurate or not). Perhaps there were many kids who had ADHD but weren’t diagnosed as such 40 years ago; perhaps there are many today who don’t have ADHD but still received the diagnosis. Perhaps. But without numbers, we can’t judge the significance. And is Internet addiction a cause or  symptom? Lots of questions, not enough answers.

You may also wonder, as I did, whether there’s any difference between ADD and ADHD. Is it a distinction without a difference? Here’s what Healthline says, FWIW:

Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is one of the most common childhood disorders. ADHD is a broad term, and the condition can vary from person to person. There are an estimated 6.4 million diagnosed children in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The condition is also known as attention deficit disorder (ADD), though this is considered an outdated term. The American Psychiatric Association released the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-5) in May 2013. The DSM-5 changed the criteria necessary to diagnose someone with ADHD.

OK, so we’ll stick to ADHD.

Many — perhaps most — Americans believe that it is overdiagnosed. The diagnosis can bring special accommodations, including extra time. According to some scientists at UC Berkeley, there is “a significant increase from the previous decade”:

The rise also represents a greatly expanded market for the powerful stimulant medications prescribed for ADHD. In a just-published book that is receiving widespread attention, two UC Berkeley professors link the phenomenon to the growing popularity of school-based performance measures in the 1990s and 2000s—an approach that emerged in a number of states across the country and was implemented at the federal level by President George W. Bush in his signature No Child Left Behind legislation.

They go on to explain the overdiagnosis issue:

ADHD is real—it’s not made up. But it exists on a continuum. There’s no marker or white line that says you’re in the “definite” or “highly likely” group. There’s almost unanimous agreement that five or six percent clearly have enough of these symptoms for an ADHD diagnosis. Then there’s the next group, where the diagnosis is more of a judgment call, and for these kids, behavioral therapy might work. And then there’s a third group, on the borderline. These are the ones we’re worried about being pushed into an inaccurate diagnosis.

I am not, of course, an expert, so I have no right to challenge any particular diagnosis. All I can say is that sometimes I see symptoms that match the diagnosis and sometimes I don’t. The whole thing is complicated by medication: a student who is taking prescribed meds (in prescribed doses) may well present as attentive and focused, but only because the meds are working as intended. What looks to a naive observer like a situation of erroneous diagnosis is actually the opposite: if the meds are working, then the diagnosis is confirmed, not refuted.

We’re talking about human beings, of course. Perhaps we cat lovers have a particular affinity for kids with ADHD, since clearly all cats suffer from it, as anyone with feline companions knows well.

Was that a distracted comment?

Anyway, let’s go back to the New York Times article that sparked this whole post in the first place. Schwartz tries to deal with his Internet addiction by finding a better life balance. He offers the following observations:

As the weeks passed, I was able to let go of my need for more facts as a source of gratification. I shifted instead to novels, ending my vacation by binge-reading Jonathan Franzen’s 500-some-page novel, Purity, sometimes for hours at a time.

I am back at work now, and of course I am back online. The Internet isn’t going away, and it will continue to consume a lot of my attention. My aim now is to find the best possible balance between time online and time off.

I do feel more in control. I’m less reactive and more intentional about where I put my attention. When I’m online, I try to resist surfing myself into a stupor. As often as possible, I try to ask myself, “Is this really what I want to be doing?” If the answer is no, the next question is, “What could I be doing that would feel more productive, or satisfying, or relaxing?”

I also make it my business now to take on more fully absorbing activities as part of my days. Above all, I’ve kept up reading books, not just because I love them, but also as a continuing attention-building practice.

As a reader of two or three (or more) books per week, I love his solution. More people should try it.


Categories: Books, Cats, Life, Teaching & Learning