Photo of a boy holding up a smart phone while a girl looks over his shoulder.

This is video 5 in my 12-part video series on The Myth of the ADHD Child.  In this video I focus on the impact that our changing media landscape has had on the increase in the ADHD diagnoses of children and teens over the past many years.  First, I talk about media stimulation, how it’s measured (in ”jolts”), how it impacts our nervous system, and how it has speeded up substantially for everyone over the past fifty years.  Then I relate this increased media stimulation to the exponential rise in the incidence of ADHD over the past 20-30 years.  I talk about the relationship between the neurotransmitter dopamine and media stimulation, and how ADHD is connected to dopamine dysregulation.  I share studies that link media exposure to ADHD symptoms. I note the ADHD community’s reluctance to ascribe media influences to ADHD, and then suggest that ADHD experts need to recognize that there are bio-cultural dimensions to ADHD that need to be recognized and acted upon.  I ask the viewer whether we should keep giving kids more drugs to help them survive this overexposure to media, or instead work to lower their media exposure, and work as advocates for alternatives to mass media such as reading, playing, outdoor experiences and more.  Read the transcript to this video below.

Transcript of Video

Hi, I’m Dr. Thomas Armstrong.  This is part 5 of my 12-part video series on The Myth of the ADHD Child.  This video is entitled ‘’For Many Kids ADHD Isn’t a Medical Disorder:  It’s a Media Disorder.’’

Let me preface this presentation by saying that I DO believe that ADHD symptoms exist.  I’m not some looney out there saying the earth is flat or something equally crazy.  But I believe after 50 years of studying this issue, that the hypothesis that there is a specific medical disorder called ADHD causing these symptoms is wrong and that there are many other perspectives that can account for these symptoms.  In this video, I look at ADHD from the standpoint of media studies.

In the media world, there’s a word that’s used to describe camera changes, light changes, sound changes, and other dynamic aspects of a piece of media, whether it be a TV program, a movie, a video game, a social network channel, or any other form of mass communication.  That word is ‘’jolt.’’  It’s defined here [slide 3] as ‘’the moment of excitement generated by a laugh, a violent act, a car chase, a quick film cut – any fast-paced episode that lures the viewer into the program.’’  Media experts have measured these changes in ‘’jolts per minute.’’

Let’s look at some examples.  Here are two Pepsi commercials, one from the 1950’s and one from 2023 [slide 4].  I can’t show you the commercials because of copyright restrictions, but I think you can guess that the 2023 Pepsi commercial has more jolts in it.  We can see Ben Stiller pouring Pepsi on his head in the 2023 commercial – that’s certainly worth a few jolts!

Another example.  Here are two video games [slide 5].  The one on the left is Pong, one of the first video games that came out. Atari introduced it in 1972.  The image on the right is an amalgam of current video games.  Again, I can’t show you them in action, but you can get a sense of which one has more jolts in it.  Pong just had a dot moving from right to left, while these vertical bars moved up and down.  Not a lot going on there.  But from your own experiences with current video games, you probably can’t count all the jolts going on per minute.

In fact, media experts now are referring to ‘’jolts per second.’’ Media has become that much more speeded up in the past few decades.  One media commentator wrote about ‘’MTV-style hyper-visuals where anything less than a dozen jolts per second is considered boring.’’  Think about that, a dozen jolts per second.  That’s probably the speed of today’s commercials and video games, maybe more.  You can check this out for yourself on You Tube.  Play a commercial from the 1950’s and then one from 2023, and see what you get.

My point is that the amount of stimulation from mass media has changed radically over the past few decades.  In this presentation, [which by the way, you’ve probably noticed is not moving at a dozen jolts per second!] I’m going to suggest that this speeding up of media has something to do with the emergence of ADHD as a disorder and the sharp increase in the number of kids and teens diagnosed with ADHD over the past several years.  It should be noted that Pong was created in 1972 and that it was just the year before, 1971, when ADHD was first given birth in a speech delivered by psychologist Virginia Douglas to the Canadian Psychological Association.  Coincidence?  Perhaps. Perhaps not.

But let me back up for a moment, to talk about the stimulation that mass media produces.  We’re going back now to the early part of the twentieth century and the Russian neurologist and physiologist Ivan Pavlov and his famous experiments with salivating dogs.  As you probably know, he would bang a gong whenever the dogs were being fed, salivating because of the food they were receiving. He discovered that after a few trials of this, the gong alone would elicit the salivation reflex.  This became known as classical conditioning.  Pavlov was given the Nobel Prize in Medicine or Physiology in 1904, although not for this discovery.

Pavlov talked about something he called ‘’the orienting response. which is an organism’s immediate response to a change in its environment.  This reflex comes before the rational mind even becomes aware of it.

The orienting response emerged in human prehistory through evolutionary pressures tied to adaptations in the environment where there were dangers to prehistoric humans requiring them to be highly attuned to stimuli like an approaching saber-toothed tiger, or some other predator.  It’s a reflex that’s hard-wired into the nervous system and has been for hundreds of thousands, if not millions of years.

Another important concept for our understanding of media’s effects on the human nervous system is the idea of ‘’habituation.’’  This refers to the diminishing of a physiological or emotional response to a frequently repeated stimulus.  A good illustration of this in folk culture is ‘’the boy who cried wolf.’’ Remember that the shepherd would run to the townspeople as a joke and say there was a wolf attacking his sheep, and they would follow him to the fields and discover that it wasn’t true and that he was just doing it to get a laugh.  He repeated this several times over the course of days, weeks, or months, and each time the townspeople became less and less responsive to his pleas, until finally, there was a time when a real wolf was attacking his sheep and he went to the townspeople to tell them, and they just stood there and said ‘’we’re not going to have the wool pulled over our eyes anymore’’ and they didn’t come, and the wolf ate up all his sheep.  The stimulation of his cries became less and less effective over time to the townspeople.  That’s habituation.

What we’ve seen in mass media over the past several decades is this process of habituation going on.  Media producers have created products (shows, programs etc.) that had a certain given level of stimulation, and over time discovered that their viewers had become habituated to that stimulation.  So, what did they do?  They had to raise the level of stimulation.  Make it faster, louder, more controversial to elicit the same orienting response.  Then the public became habituated to that stimulus, so they had to up the ante again, and again, and again.  Until now, where a dozen jolts per second aren’t even enough to keep the product or program from being boring (boredom being an indication that habituation has taken place).

It bears keeping in mind that the real reason for all this upping of the ante of stimulation is because media producers need to catch the user’s attention to sell products through ads.  The orienting response has become a crucial part of our capitalistic market-driven economy.

Not only has the intensity of stimulation from media increased exponentially over the past few decades, so has the amount of time spent viewing media.  You see here it’s reported that teens spend more than seven hours a day looking at electronic screens – over seven hours a day!  Think of it!  And that doesn’t even include the time they spend at school looking at screens!  So, think . . . intense stimulation over a long period of time.  It almost sounds like a war zone.

I mentioned that the orienting response takes place in our nervous system.  In the past seventy years we’ve progressed quite a bit in our getting closer to the neurological underpinnings of all that stimulation.  In 1957,  a Swedish pharmacologist named Arvid Carlsson identified a neurotransmitter called dopamine for which he was awarded the Nobel Prize in 2000.  Neurotransmitters are the chemicals that transport signals from one brain cell to another. Dopamine is important in regulating our hunger for rewards, our motivation, our attention span, and several other human functions.  This diagram shows some of the key dopamine sites in the brain.  Note the striatum as one important area and notice how dopamine extends into large areas of the frontal lobes which regulate our inhibition, our executive functioning, and a whole host of other important cognitive processes.

Dopamine has become quite a sensation of late, with the book Dopamine Nation hitting the best-seller list.  The author, Stanford psychiatrist Anna Lembke, writes that we have so many forms of stimulation in our culture that we’ve become virtually addicted to dopamine.  She talks about how ‘’the smartphone is the modern-day hypodermic needle, delivering digital dopamine 24/7 for a wired generation.’’

Now let’s talk about ADHD, because it turns out that dopamine dysregulation is regarded by ADHD experts as a key factor in the emergence of ADHD symptoms. Scientists have identified, for example, one mutated version of a gene in many people diagnosed as having ADHD called the DRD4 gene which produces the proteins that are made into dopamine receptors.  Receptors are the places in a brain cell where the neurotransmitter ends up after it has been transported from the previous cell to the new cell.  If there’s a problem with the receptor, then the amount of dopamine being transported will be affected and there will be, among other things, an increased craving for rewards.  That’s an oversimplification, but it sketches a general picture of how dopamine and ADHD may be related.

It’s interesting to note that psychostimulants like Adderall and Ritalin, medications used to treat ADHD, work in part by increasing striatal dopamine release (remember that diagram where the striatum was a key region of the brain related to the dopaminergic system).

So now, we’re seeing some patterns.  Media stimulation affects dopamine release.  Our kids are drowning in dopamine stimulation through the anteing up of the orienting response by advertisers anxious to sell products.  Essentially, media screws up kids’ dopamine regulation by giving them so many rewards (clicks, likes, follows, connects, images and more), that they habituate and require higher levels of stimulation. And their dopaminergic pathways become exhausted.  That’s why I say for many kids ADHD is not so much a medical disorder as it is a media disorder.

The ADHD experts generally like to discount the impact of media in causing ADHD.  They want ADHD to stand on its own two feet, so to speak, as a clear neurobiological disorder.  However, there are indications that ADHD may be bio-culturally determined.  This diagram shows how certain individuals have genetic susceptibilities (such as through the mutated DRD4 gene, for example), and this leads to brain sensitivities, which up to that point are differences not disorders (in fact, a certain higher sensitivity to stimulation may be an advantage in some environments as we’ll see when we get to the anthropological perspective on ADHD in a future video).  But then cultural influences take over, over-saturation from media stimuli engulfs a nervous system already sensitive to reward-seeking, and ADHD symptoms are the result.  In this case, ADHD doesn’t just pop up out of nowhere.  It requires the interactions of genes, brain chemicals, and cultural influences. You simply can’t separate neurology from culture – they interpenetrate one another.

This is what recent research is suggesting.  That media exposure is related to ADHD symptoms, in this particular study [slide 18] to computer games. Studies have also shown that when young children (up to the age of three or four) are exposed to media, they are more apt to have attention problems at age seven or later. So, we’re increasingly seeing evidence of a link between media and ADHD symptoms.

Dr. Dimitri Christakis, a pediatrician who was one of the authors of the study shown in the last slide, suggests that while early media exposure increases the likelihood of attention problems later on in childhood, family activities like reading together, playing games together, or building models together and so on, result in less attention problems for kids. So, it’s becoming clear where the solutions lie in dealing with our ADHD epidemic.

This is an important issue.  For if mass media is in fact a significant influence in creating ADHD symptoms, that means that for millions of children, doctors are prescribing medicine for a media disorder not a medical disorder.  Are the adults in society right in saying that our epidemic of mass media stimulation is something that is built-in to our culture, that we simply have to accept, and that to survive in it, you need a Schedule II drug to manage the symptoms.  That doesn’t somehow sound right.  Perhaps you the viewer can be the judge of that.  Maybe a better way of going about it is to have our kids consume less media, and for us to become more active in advocating for alternatives to mass media, like reading, games, and outdoor activities.

For more information about this alternative media perspective, and other themes of this video series, plus several practical strategies for reducing media exposure among children and teens, see my book The Myth of the ADHD Child:  101 Ways to Improve Your Child’s Behavior and Attention Span without Drugs, Labels, or Coercion.  It’s available through online stores like Amazon, national chains like Barnes and Noble, and independent bookstores worldwide.  It’s also available as an audio recording on Audible. See also my book for K-12 educators:  ADD/ADHD Alternatives in the Classroom. And make sure to watch my other videos in this series on You Tube. Thanks so much!

This blog post was brought to you by Thomas Armstrong, Ph.D. and

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Cover of book ADD/ADHD Alternatives in the Classroom








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I’m the author of 20 books including my latest, a novel called Childless, which you can order from Amazon.

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