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What Social Media Does to an ADHD Brain

What is it about the ping you hear from your cellphone, alerting you to an email, tweet, or status update? Why do you feel excited when you see the cute picture you posted this morning already has 8 comments?

Researchers are beginning to study how our brains are affected by social media, particularly when a person has ADHD. That little thrill you get when you see reactions to your posts and that urge to check for updates is real—researchers are learning that the brain is releasing neurotransmitters that are related to pleasure and a feeling of being better focused when we receive these notifications.

For adults and teens affected by ADHD, social media can interfere with daily activities and relationships. Young adults may be spending nearly nine hours a day using their smartphones. Already, there is growing evidence that people affected by ADHD are more likely to overuse the internet and video games. The convenience of a smartphone can make this situation more difficult to disconnect from the novelty and reinforcement offered by social media.

Can a person actually develop a dependence on their smartphone and social media? Researchers who are studying this possibility think that it is likely.

“Social media is delivering a reinforcement every time a person logs on," Dr. Shannon M. Rauch, of Benedictine University at Mesa, Arizona, told Medical News Today. "For those who post status updates, the reinforcements keep coming in the form of supportive comments and likes. And of course we know that behaviors that are consistently reinforced will be repeated, so it becomes hard for a person who has developed this habit to simply stop."

For the brain affected by ADHD, there is a constant search for novelty, which can release that small burst of neurotransmitters. This search can be seen in risk-taking activities and rushing into new projects and ideas. With that small ping, there is the promise of something new at one’s fingertips. Many people are finding themselves, or their teens, becoming so involved in their cellphones that it can be almost painful to set the phone aside.

What can you do if you find yourself becoming absorbed in social media? Experts suggest a few options that can help decrease social media use:

  • Become aware of how frequently and where you use social media.
  • Look for other activities you find rewarding to replace how often you use your smartphone.
  • Keep your smartphone in another location, preferable not in a bedroom.
  • Schedule times to check your social media and to reply, whether that is on a computer or a smartphone, and don’t check it at other times.
  • Make an effort to remove your smartphone from where you can see or hear it, especially when driving or visiting with other people.
  • Turn your notifications off.

If you feel that your use of social media or electronics is interfering with your daily life, discuss it with your health care provider, who can offer guidance on how you can address an overuse of social media.

This article appeared in ADHD Weekly on June 02, 2016.

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