Is the internet more stressful for young people with ADHD?

Clarissa talks about her day-to-day life online - and shares advice for messaging friends with ADHD.

Tech and the online world
By Parent Zone ·

Clarissa

Clarissa works as an administrator and lives in Sheffield. She was diagnosed with ADHD in 2016 and enjoys music and films.

ADHD online

Clarissa talks about being an internet user with ADHD.

Professor Edmund Sonuga-Barke

Edmund Sonuga-Barke is a Professor of Developmental Psychology, Psychiatry and Neuroscience. He is an expert in the causes and treatment of child and adolescent mental health conditions, with a particular focus on ADHD.

Is the online world more stressful for young people with ADHD?

I’ve been studying human behaviour for over 30 years. More than anything, Clarissa’s story highlights for me that we are all – ADHD or no ADHD – on a kind of continuum.

Unfortunately, that fact makes this question pretty complicated to answer!

ADHD as a kind of variation

Populations contain lots of variation. Humans naturally have different personalities – and different levels of ability when it comes to concentrating, making ‘good’ decisions and reflecting on things. So I don’t see ADHD as a disease at all. It’s just one kind of variation – with its own diversity, of course.

Clarissa’s story

But in some environments, having it can create a lot of difficulties. The online world might be one of those and I’ll get to that later. Classrooms are a classic example, because they require children to regulate their behaviour in certain ways. Many children with ADHD need a bit of help to make the most out of school.

Not all of them, though. Clarissa, for example, did pretty well at school. She talks about throwing herself into the subjects she loved and daydreaming during the ones she didn’t. Other people with ADHD can’t concentrate on something from one minute to the next, whether or not they enjoy it.

My story

My difficulties at school were picked up a lot earlier than Clarissa’s and at a different period culturally. At the age of eight or nine, I was still struggling to either read or sit still, shut up and focus at school. Eventually, I was assessed at the child health clinic in Derby and they said I had something called ‘minimal brain dysfunction’ – a catch-all term for a range of difficulties, including what we now know of as ADHD. I got put in the ‘remedial’ class where I remember doing a lot of drawing and not much else.

When I was 12 I also got a diagnosis of dyslexia (or word-blindness as it was still known then). This came as a great relief to my mum, who said to me “I knew you weren’t stupid Eddie.” Thinking about it now, I do wonder whether these experiences unconsciously inspired me to pursue studies in psychology, neuroscience and children’s mental health.

The internet – perfect environment or perfect storm

Of course, there was no digital technology in the 70s – so I never had the opportunity to use the internet.

In some ways the internet is a great environment for many people with ADHD – but it has dangers too. Many people with ADHD have something called ‘stimulus hunger’, which means they’re constantly looking for intellectual stimulation. It allows them to bounce from thing to thing while exploring their interests.

In this way ADHD isn’t really an accurate label for all people who are given it, because they don’t lack attention – they actually have loads of attention to give. Their attention just moves from thing to thing, or settles on a thing that isn’t the task they’re supposed to be doing. ‘Hyperfocusing’ – becoming totally absorbed in something – is an under-researched part of ADHD.

At the same time this stimulus hunger makes people with ADHD prone to developing internet and gaming addiction. Games are designed with ‘flow’ – taking you through an experience that’s just interesting enough to keep you engaged. Unsurprisingly, this is a perfect storm when you’re hungry for stimulation – if you get lost in it, it can take you away from your offline relationships.

The online world also has great potential when it comes to building communities. Before she even knew about her ADHD, Clarissa mentioned using the internet to find like-minded people and feel less alone. But because we didn’t have the internet as kids, it was harder for us to pick and choose our social environment; we just had to get on with whatever situation confronted us. I think that helped us learn to be adaptive and develop resilience. Online, you’re in control of your stimulus environment. You pick and choose what you consume, which can be positive but also risky.

So what comes next?

As both a scientist and someone who grew up with these traits and difficulties, I believe that children need to find a balance between ‘safety’ and challenge. People with ADHD should have their needs met – but, speaking from experience, they must also face challenges and build resilience.

Finding that sweet spot is hard – but in the meantime:

If you know someone with ADHD, don’t feel like you have to treat them any differently. When was a kid I would never have wanted to feel like someone was artificially adjusting for me.

If you have ADHD, create your friendship circles around people that know you and you trust to value who you are.