Attention Deficit Trait

Digital natives—the generation that has grown up with digital technology—are accustomed to playing, working and communicating almost simultaneously on multiple wireless devices such as a phone, tablet and laptop computers. Adults of a certain age are less sanguine about the gradual slide into electronic multitasking, often claiming to have ADD (Attention Deficit Disorder).

It turns out they may be onto something.  ADT, or Attention Deficit Trait, was coined a few years back to describe behaviors learned from one’s environment that often mimic ADD (now more commonly referred to as ADHD—Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder).

ADT is a non-medical condition. A “trait” (as opposed to a “disorder”) is learned, and therefore feels somewhat normal. Adults with ADT are not aware of a problem.

Neither are children. The environment in which digital natives have grown up makes a myriad of demands on attention, often pulling in opposite directions. Multitasking has become commonplace.

Imagine young children’s exposure to digital devices: cell phones, tablets, Play Stations. It is all portable, moving from home to the car; even available while walking. Any given device can have multiple apps open and active; so that a child may be listening to music, playing a game and talking on the phone at the same time.

Despite the appearance of active engagement, too much electronic media is isolating and anti-personal: ear buds, texting. You do not have to be a Luddite to be concerned that children now have less opportunity for direct interpersonal communication and that abbreviations common to texting are showing up in school work.

The traits learned from electronic immersion—poor spelling, inability to listen or pay attention in live settings—would otherwise seem to point toward ADHD.
According to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), 3-5% of children have been diagnosed with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). ADHD affects mainly children and adolescents, but can carry on thru to adulthood. The cause is unknown; so there is no way to prevent it; and it resists conventional treatment.

Children with ADHD are easily distracted and have challenges in following instructions. They cannot keep track of things and often appear to not be listening when someone speaks to them. They tend to daydream.

What makes it difficult for teachers and other significant adults is that children with ADHD are often impulsive, talk excessively and have trouble sitting still. These behaviors are also common among children who are simply bored, so diagnosis requires assessment by a competent mental health professional.

While ADHD is a medical diagnosis, ADT represents a behavioral challenge. True ADHD is congenital, a disorder requiring medical intervention. In contrast, ADT is created, and can therefore be changed, by environmental conditions. 

Children and adults alike benefit from reduced exposure to digital media. Adults stressed by worked-related multi-tasking should prioritize and use only media and apps that are most relevant and critical to that work. At home parents need to set limits for their children, restricting overexposure to digital media and encouraging live interaction with real people and nature.


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