December 21, 2021 3 Comments

Social media, ADHD and time perception: what can cognitive science tell us?

Zahra Rezazadeh

Ludwig-Maximilians University, Munich

A brief commentary on four papers: Sagar, 2021, Wiederhold, 2019, Settanni, 2018 and Chaelin, 2018.

ADHD and social media

Research has been done on how social media use leads to developing ADHD symptoms and also, the other way around, how ADHD leads to the addictive use of social media, and furthermore, as if this was not already complicated enough, how these two both influence and are influenced by our understanding of the flow of time. 

Now, how should we make sense of all of this?

What is ADHD?

The Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder is a mental health condition that can cause unusual levels of hyperactivity and impulsive behaviors. People with ADHD may also have trouble focusing their attention on a single task or sitting still for long periods of time.

ADHD has a strong genetic component. If you have a close relative who has ADHD, there is a high probability that you have ADHD, but not that you are fated to have it. Even if you happen to have it, there are ways to overcome its symptoms.

Another important point about ADHD is that it has nothing to do with intelligence. Of all the various forms of intelligence (emotional, musical, spacial, etc., whether or not measurable by different IQ tests), none are related to ADHD. Being diagnosed with ADHD has nothing to do with how smart you are.

Individuals with ADHD are characterised by a subset of the following symptoms

Inability to keep attention focused on a single item
Inability to follow instructions
Hyperactivity and restlessness: excessive movements that don’t fit the setting 
Impulsivity: hasty acts that occur without any thought

Nevertheless, if given tasks that they really love and enjoy doing, people with ADHD would obtain laser focus without any effort. This tells us that people with ADHD have the capacity to attend, but can’t engage that attention to the things that they don’t really want to do. Unlucky for them, much of life involves things we don’t really want to do!

social media: weapons of mass distraction

The association between social media use and adult ADHD

Online technologies like Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Youtube, Snapchat, etc. are easily accessible and intensely stimulating. They provide an ideal outlet for constant clicking, fidgeting, instant gratification, seeking attention and getting anxious when not receiving it, and simply put, hyperactivity!

Social media provides small, but immediate rewards with very little effort. Five to 10% of internet users are unable to control how much time they spend online, chasing such rewards. Technically this counts as an  addiction, according to psychologists. Interestingly, brain scans of such social media addicts show similar impairment of brain regions as people with drug dependence. Specifically, there is a clear degradation of white matter in the regions that control attention, decision-making and emotional processing.

It might seem logical to think that people who use social media while working must be better at multitasking, but studies have found that heavy social media users, compared to normal users, perform much worse in task-switching tests -that are a laboratory measure of multi-tasking. The research suggests that increased online multitasking reduces the brain’s ability to filter out interference and can even make it harder for the brain to commit information to memory.

Yet another way social media messes with our brain is with the release of Dopamine -the feel good chemical! Dopamine is a neuromodulator, associated with pleasurable sensations. Such sensations could come from our social communications. While only 30 to 40% of face-to-face conversations involve communicating our own experiences, around 80% of social media communication is self-involved! Therefore, more Dopamine is released, causing the brain into feeling and then getting used to those pleasurable sensations. According to MRI studies, the same parts of your brain related to orgasms, motivation and love are stimulated by your social media use! Your body is physiologically rewarding you for talking about yourselves online!

The physiological, cognitive and emotional arousal caused by social media use, put together with the circadian rhythm dysregulation due to the blue light emitted by our devices, result in sleep difficulties, which in turn cause the development of ADHD symptoms such as lack of focus, impulsivity and emotional lability. In adults, the hyperactivity in the term ADHD translates into inner restlessness. That could be the exact reason why adults with ADHD appeal to social media out of desperation; to find an outlet for their restlessness.

The reviewed papers here (of the types longitudinal cohort and cross sectional, with adolescents as target individuals), confirm that ADHD symptoms positively predict addictive social media use, and that there is a significant association between higher frequency of social media use and subsequent symptoms of ADHD.

time perception and time perspective

Time perception and time perspective

People with ADHD have challenges with time perception. They often run late; they often procrastinate, but if they are given a deadline, they can perceive time very well. Yet again, if they are not really concerned about that deadline and its consequences, they again tend to lose track of time and they will underestimate how long tasks would take. Well, you might say many people do that, but people with ADHD have challenges understanding how to line up the activities of their day in order to meet particular deadlines.

On the other hand, time perspective is the manner in which individuals partition the flow of human experience into the distinct temporal categories of past, present, and future. 

There are five orientations in the perception of time: 
Past negative
Present hedonistic
Past positive
Present fatalistic

Past negative orientation is marked by a negative vision of the past, due to traumatic past experiences or unpleasant current experiences. Present hedonistic orientation is about the pursuit of pleasure in the present, not caring about future consequences or not having the ability to postpone this pleasure. Future orientation is an orientation towards the future and achieving goals in the future. Past positive orientation is, unlike present negative orientation, marked by a positive perception of the past and by nostalgic feelings. Lastly, Present fatalistic orientation is marked by the perception that the future is predetermined and not influenced by present actions.

People with ADHD are characterized by rather hedonistic and fatalistic views of the present, more negative thoughts about the past and less optimistic views of the future. What is common among the results of all studies, is that people with ADHD tend to be less future-oriented and hold negative and powerless views of their past and present life experiences. These findings about time perspective orientations shed light on the deficient self-regulations in people with ADHD, which push them towards engaging in addictive online activities to escape negative emotional states like anxiety or stress.

Youngest individuals (Generation Z) in families, undergraduate individuals and people with pre-existing mental health problems are more prone to addictive use of social media, and also more prone to developing ADHD symptoms.

Children are now interacting with digital media at the malleable age of 4 months! Moving forward, perhaps the bigger question should not be if digital media causes ADHD symptoms, but rather whether newer generations, who may have hyperactivity ingrained into their development, can realistically be expected to maintain the society??

If you are curious about your time perspective orientation, test yourself on the Zimbardo Time Perspective Inventory here. To assess your daily use of social media, fill out the Bergen Facebook Addiction Scale here. Last but not least, here’s where you can also check yourself for symptoms of ADHD.


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  • Fardin

    Excellent cognitive findings.
    So amazing brief review.
    About dependence, it might be true that dependence of any kind, in its general form, would cause the same effects on the brain whether it be social media, or drug, or drinking tea, or reading a book, or having real social interactions, or interacting with beloved person/thing/place, or whatever type of dependence. So is it true that all of us are somehow addicted to something, whether “apparently” positive or negative? If so, then the point is not avoiding social media dependence but dependence itself.
    Regarding the sleep disorders caused by blue light screen devices when browsing social media, which eventually leads to ADHD symptoms, I think one can argue that correlation between social media usage and ADHD by the fact that the emitted blue light can be reduced (using screen protectors) or omitted (maybe more advanced technologies), keeping also in mind that this emitted blue light is not specific to social media but to the device itself.
    When associating addictive social media with ADHD symptoms it implicitly makes us have negative mentality about ADHD, while we know that the history has seen a lot of successful people or scientists who had ADHD symptoms such as Albert Einstein, Leonardo da Vinci, Thomas Edison, Alexander Graham Bell, Michael Faraday, John F Kennedy, Bill Gates, … and who knows if they were still successful without having ADHD symptoms.


    • Zahra RZ

      Thanks for your comment!
      Of course it’s inevitable for humans to have some sort of dependence. It’s only its object and the extent to which we get dependent, that are in our hands, as some dependencies can be more detrimental than other ones.
      Actually there’s more to the effects of light on our body than just the blue light. Light of any source can mess with the circadian rhythm of our body, and more so the blue light. And yes, our device itself, without social media, can also be an outlet for our fidgeting!
      I’m not an expert on ADHD and how different combinations of its symptoms could shape up the diagnosed person’s life, but these successful people or scientists have sure found a way to make their peace with all the restlessness they felt inside! They apparently turned threats into opportunities!

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