As you may already know, ADD was invented around 1991. It has since become really popular; as of 2011, 11% of children between the ages of 4-17 have been diagnosed, and rates of diagnosis are increasing at a rate of 3-5% each year. (If that trend holds, by the way, then by the year 2045 fully 50% of all children will be diagnosed with ADD.) It has become so common that all of us sometimes attribute our impatience or inattention to an incipient or undiagnosed case of ADD. And while it’s certainly treatable, it’s something most of us would prefer not to have to deal with.
I’m sure there are several factors that cause ADD and ADHD, and I’m not going to pretend to know all of them. But one factor is bigger and more important than all the others combined. There’s a reason doctors don’t want children to watch television until they’re at least 2 years old.
And here’s why.
Regardless of whether or not humans were created or evolved, we are designed for the natural world; and our brains, by extension, are designed to process information at the speed at which the natural world moves. In our infancy, our brains are learning to interpret an enormous amount of information – language, facial recognition, object permanence, body movement and coordination, action and consequence. (That’s probably why babies sleep as much as they do, by the way, because their brains need frequent periods of downtime to organize everything.) And one of the many things we’re learning is how fast and how often something new enters our perception.
Or, to put it in moviemaking terms, one of the things we learn when we’re young is how quickly the scene changes.
In our natural lives, the scene doesn’t change very often. Your eyes are the camera, and they can only look at one scene at a time. We generally don’t move our heads or our eyes very quickly when we’re doing normal activities, and so the number of scene changes is relatively low. We focus on one thing for a few seconds – an object, a person’s face, the tiger that may or may not be preparing to eat us – and then we focus on something else. Sometimes we can look at the same scene for minutes at a time without shifting our attention to anything else. That’s the speed for which we were built to operate, and that’s one of the things we’re supposed to learn as infants.
Now put yourself in front of a TV show, or a commercial, or a smartphone, or a tablet. With every one of those devices, the scene is changing exponentially faster than it does in the natural world. The average 30-second commercial has dozens of rapid scene changes from one camera angle to the next. The average tablet user is either pulling up new screens every second or scrolling through something that changes continuously. The average action movie sequence has gotten so chaotic that my own adult brain literally can’t even process what’s happening sometimes. I just know that a bunch of robots are beating each other up, but I can’t tell which one’s winning until the end when the bad guy is dead (or maybe doing his triumphant ‘I’m going to kill you’ monologue just before the hero robot finds an inner reserve of robot strength to turn the tables and conquer his evil robot foe). Whatever the technology is, it changes the picture on you faster than anything the natural world has to offer. In fact, if you try right now to look at 30 different things in the next 15 seconds, you’ll probably experience some amount of headache or eyestrain. (Try it for yourself, in case you’re in the mood for a very small headache.)
And here’s what that all means. If your months-old brain is still attempting to figure out how fast the world moves and it spends too much time in front of a screen, it will learn to think at the speed of our technology. It will train itself to expect changes to occur much faster than they do in our natural lives, and it will not develop the patience that all of us need in order to acquire the skills we’ll be learning later in life – learning how to read, playing an instrument, succeeding at a career, or anything else that requires time, patience, and dedicated concentration.
This is not to say that children can’t or shouldn’t watch any television or play with computers. My mother used The Price is Right as an hourlong babysitter for me every day from the time I was about 18 months old, because apparently even back then I had great taste in television and was so engrossed by the wizardry of Bob Barker that my mother could have spontaneously combusted and I would have kept on watching. I don’t have ADHD, and there are millions of other people with similar childhood experiences who don’t have it either. I don’t mean to imply that watching television as a child will absolutely lead to an attention-deficit disorder. But watching too much television will increase the odds.
But this isn’t just limited to children. If you find yourself having trouble concentrating as much as you’d like to, do yourself a favor. Turn off the television, put your phone out of reach, and go for a walk. Sit outside and stare at some birds or rocks or trees for a while. Read a book. Meditate. Do anything you can think of where your frame of reference will be changing at a natural pace. It might be difficult at first, and you might not be able to do it for very long before the urge to shift gears kicks in. You’ve spent the last several years training yourself to think at the speed of technology, so it might take a while to re-teach yourself how to think at the speed of life. But you’ll get better at it if you keep trying.
Besides, the first time you try meditating you’ll probably fall asleep. And naps are awesome. Way better than playing another useless game of Candy Crush. Do you even like it anymore, or are you just playing it because it’s there? Do you have to be staring at your phone every time you have an idle moment, or are you compelled to reach for it because that’s what you’ve trained yourself to do?