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Down the Rabbit Hole: The Internet, Social Media, and ADHD

 ADHD Weekly, January 31, 2019


I’m just going to look up one thing online—I need to know where Johnny Cash was born, you tell yourself. Before you know it, half an hour has passed and Johnny Cash’s birthplace is a distant memory. You got sidetracked by the link to the Country Music Hall of Fame, whose page mentions a 1959 Cadillac. What does a 1959 Cadillac look like? you wonder, clicking on yet another link.

Everyone who has ever gone online or used an app knows the feeling of lost time. But for people with ADHD, the spell of the smartphone or the computer can be even harder to break.

Time blindness when online

People who have ADHD struggle with “time blindness,” according to Russell Barkley, PhD, a clinical professor of psychiatry at the Virginia Treatment Center for Children and Virginia Commonwealth University Medical Center.

“People with ADHD cannot deal with time—that includes looking back and looking ahead, to get ready for what’s coming at you. So the individual with ADHD is kind of living in the now,” he explains in his presentation, The 30 Essential Ideas Every Parent Needs to Know to Understand and Raise a Child with ADHD.

“ADHD creates a blindness to time or, to be more accurate, a nearsightedness to the future,” Dr. Barkley says. “Just as people who are nearsighted can only read things close at hand, people with ADHD can only deal with things near in time.”

So, when you start scrolling through your Facebook feed, you’re likely to lose track of how long you’ve been doing it. You’re probably also going to forget—at least temporarily—what else you should be doing. The distraction of life online can mean you miss your doctor’s appointment or are late to work. That’s time blindness.

A person with ADHD could struggle to put down the social media because of the excitement of a new post or a new picture. That’s because the ADHD brain may have a problem with the “reward center,” the part of the brain that releases dopamine, a chemical messenger. Dopamine has long been thought to have a relationship with ADHD symptoms. Reading each new post, clicking ‘like’ on it, gives a quick shot of dopamine, rewarding the brain for the behavior of clicking on its link. People who don’t have enough dopamine tend to struggle with ending various kinds of exciting or novel activities because of the brain’s desire for that quick boost—which is why it’s hard to get up and walk away from something that is fun to do.

Managing your time online

Consider your problem areas: Facebook and Instagram feeds or frequent Google searches? Next, ask yourself where and when the use is a problem. Is it interfering with your ability to get work done on time—or at all? Once you’ve figured that out, you need to think about “how serious the guard rails need to be” to help you change, says Dana Rayburn, who coaches people who have ADHD.

If “down the rabbit hole” searches are your problem, a timer could keep you focused. Set it for a reasonable length before you start, and when it goes off, check in with yourself: Was it enough time to do what you needed to do, or could you use a few more minutes? Did you stay on task or did you wander over to a shopping or news website? Ms. Rayburn recommends putting the timer far enough away that you have to stand up and walk over to it, which will help you “break the circuit.”

With social media apps, put the problem out of sight. Moving your social media apps to the last screen on your phone keeps them out of sight and makes you work to reach them. If that’s not enough, delete them entirely. You’ll still be able to access the websites, but taking the time to go to the computer and login may be enough of a hindrance that you’ll use them less often.

Another option is an extension or an app that sets usage limits. Some let you choose the hours when you can go online and which sites you want blocked. Ms. Rayburn says one of her clients was surprised how much her life changed when she installed an app that shuts off all internet access at 8 o’clock every night.

“The reverberation is huge because she’s no longer impulsively shopping online, which means she’s saving money,” says Ms. Rayburn. “And she has all this time to do craft projects and read and talk with her husband and play with her girls—plus, she’s getting to bed on time!”

Limiting social media feeds

If you want to keep one or two forms of social media, Ms. Rayburn recommends curating your feeds carefully. For example, she only goes on Instagram and she only follows people she knows and wants to keep in touch with. With Facebook, “pare it down to the people you really care about. If I wouldn’t recognize you if you came up to me on the street, I’m not going to follow you,” she says.

Check in on your online use

Every couple of days, pay attention to how you feel after having spent time online. Most people don’t really feel good emotionally when they’ve succumbed to the magnetic draw of social media or late-night searches, says Ms. Rayburn. But creating ways to limit that time can be a significant relief.

Looking for more?

Join the discussion: What is one way to limit screen time that you’ve used successfully?