How one student is discovering the link between modern digital media and ADHD

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A PhD student and her team of mentors are filling the gap in understanding the potential links between modern digital media and ADHD in adolescents.

Chaelin Karen Ra, MPH, has noticed the upward trend in attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, known as ADHD, diagnoses in recent years. It’s a condition traditionally thought of in genetic terms, but Ra, a USC doctoral candidate in health behavior research, and her colleagues wondered how environmental, specifically technological, factors in our modern world might play a role. Evidence suggests that non-genetic components may factor into adolescent ADHD; however, finding no existing studies on the topic, the team decided to explore how the disorder might be influenced by modern digital media—the platforms that constantly seek to divert our attention for short, intense spurts of information. Ra took time to talk with us about the study and results, published in JAMA in July. She spoke with Carolyn Barnes in the Department of Population and Public Health Sciences at Keck School of Medicine of USC.

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Pictured: Chaelin Karen Ra, MPH, PhD ’19 candidate. Photo courtesy Chaelin Karen Ra.

What were your goals going into the study?

Our team wanted to investigate whether the frequency of digital media use among adolescents (15- and 16-year-olds) without significant ADHD symptoms is associated with subsequent occurrence of ADHD symptoms within a 24-month follow-up.

What made you decide to make ADHD the topic of your research?

The ADHD rates have been on the rise. However, many studies have focused on genetic factors related to ADHD. There has been evidence that non-genetic environmental factors are also associated with adolescent ADHD. Unlike traditional digital media such as TV viewing and playing a video game console, modern digital platforms are ubiquitous and intensely stimulating. Yet, no studies have investigated the association between modern digital media use and ADHD. Therefore, our team hypothesized that modern digital media use may be associated with symptoms of ADHD in adolescents.

Why is this such a topic of concern when it comes to adolescents?

Previous work had linked traditional digital media (like TV, video game consoles, and movies) to ADHD, in mostly cross-sectional studies.  Whether or not media use precedes ADHD symptoms is not clear, particularly for modern digital media platforms.  Due to their high speed, level of stimulation and ubiquitous use throughout the day, modern digital media exposure is different than traditional media. Adolescents may be vulnerable to exposures that disrupt neurodevelopment.

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What were the steps involved in conducting the study and publishing the paper?

First, we needed to come up with an idea and look for related articles for the study. We had to make sure it had not been investigated elsewhere and that it scientifically made sense. Next, we planned a research design and statistical modeling to test the hypothesis. After conducting the research, we worked diligently on data analyses to determine whether the results supported the hypothesis. Finally, we had to provide reasons for why these findings were meaningful. Our research and findings were detailed in the paper, which was then submitted for publication.

Professor Adam Leventhal, a corresponding author of this paper, has guided me throughout the whole process – developing the research design, applying more sophisticated modeling, critical thinking, etc. While conducting this paper, our team also collaborated a lot with UCLA ADHD and Development Lab, which specializes in ADHD research. I was able to work with this lab because of Dr. Leventhal’s connections.

What were your favorite parts of the research process?

I enjoy learning new things and working with others. Conducting research requires a lot of time and energy, but it is totally rewarding. Throughout this experience, I’ve learned how to think more critically, how to better handle data and do analyses, and how to better communicate with collaborators. When I first heard that our paper was finally accepted, I realized that hard work pays off, and found that everything, including data analyses, discussions and editing, was worth it.

What were the findings from your research and what do you think is the biggest takeaway from these findings?

The findings were intriguing. This was one of the first studies to investigate the association between modern digital media use and ADHD symptom status among adolescents using prospective data. We found evidence that modern digital media use may be associated with development of ADHD symptoms in adolescents. This shows us that we need to be more aware of our digital media usage and reconsider its prolonged effects.

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What do you see as your next steps career-wise?

I am currently working on my dissertation. I expect to defend in March and graduate in May, 2019. I am planning to pursue my post-doctoral training after graduation. I want to stay in academia and continue researching on mental health issues as well as minority health topics. I want to especially focus on finding risk factors and moderating effects of physical activity related to various health issues for prevention and earlier interventions.

What advice do you have for other students that are interested in conducting research and publishing?

Be ambitious and hang in there!

Read the full paper at https://jamanetwork.com/journals/jama/fullarticle/2687861.