ADHD and the attention span of children

Over the last few decades, all our attention spans have speeded up. Maybe young children are just following our lead.
Over the last few decades, all our attention spans have speeded up. Maybe young children are just following our lead.

Children and young adults are more anxious, depressed and hyperactive than children were thirty years ago. Hyperactivity is the leading mental health issue for young people. Over eleven percent of Australian children are diagnosed with the condition and that number increases each year.

The treatment usually offered to worried parents is drugs. For Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder (ADHD), amphetamines are prescribed. Such prescriptions have doubled over the last four years. Depression in teenagers is usually treated with antidepressants.

With such reliance on drug therapy, it is no wonder that many young people are cynical when adults warn them against using drugs. The distinction between legal and illegal drugs seems irrational and hypocritical to them. Ritalin, commonly used to treat ADHD, finds a ready black market among teenagers.

A small percentage of children undoubtably need drug therapy, and no one should deny them that support. Dramatic changes in behaviour are observed when these children are given appropriate drugs. However, many children are given drug therapy even though the changes in behaviour are minimal. If the change is minimal, why persevere? Drug therapy should be approached cautiously – drugs change brain chemistry, are often addictive and attract withdrawal symptoms when ceased.

Drugs are not the only answer to ADHD, however other therapies often take some effort.

One approach, effective with some children, is dietary modification. In 1993, Cornell University gave children a diet that eliminated dairy products, wheat, corn, yeast, soy, citrus, eggs, chocolate, peanuts and artificial colours and preservatives. Of 26 children with ADHD, 19 showed significantly reduced symptoms after just two weeks on the diet. Another study published in Lancet showed favourable results using a low-allergen diet and supplements of calcium, magnesium, zinc and vitamins. Other treatments include biofeedback, homoeopathy and the Tomatis method (sound healing).

Although unusual or expensive, these treatments claim improved behaviour in some children. But neither they or nor drug therapy answer the fundamental question: What is going on here?

Only thirty odd years ago, “hyperactivity” was not a common term. Such a condition did not exist. Nowadays many of us know children who have been diagnosed with ADHD.

This is a new condition, becoming more prevalent day by day. What could be causing it?

Most children are diagnosed when they begin child-care, kindergarten, pre-school or school. While their behaviour might be tolerated at home, it becomes unacceptable when they are with other children.

Child-care was not so common 20 or 40 years ago. Many children are now expected to adjust their behaviour to the expectations of their carers at a younger age, and many find this difficult.

ADHD is an attention span disorder, so it is reasonable to ask if there has been a change in our attention spans over the last thirty years. And the answer is a resounding yes. Not just the attention spans of children, but of all of us in the industrial world.

When you watch TV or a movie, you probably do not notice that the average camera hold these days is three seconds. The picture you are watching changes, on average, every three seconds.

Hollywood moguls are remaking old movies. Why? It may seem like a huge waste of resources, especially when you consider that some of the originals were award winners. But they have to remake them because the originals are too slow – most of us would fall asleep with boredom watching old movies.

The pace of our world and our attention span has increased dramatically with the introduction the electronic media. To keep us engaged, information and entertainment have to be short, sharp and fast. With the internet and the promise of broadband technology that will make even more information available at the touch of a finger, the pace will only continue to increase.

Why then are we so surprised that many of our children display similar short attention spans when we place them in institutions that require concentration and long attention spans? Schools and Kindergartens have changed little over the last 30 years in the way they present information.

Perhaps our world is so fast, we no longer have time to think.