Motivation Deficits May Drive ADHDers’ Excessive Internet Use


Anyone who says ADHDers can’t focus hasn’t seen one use the internet. Plenty of people with ADHD can become quite focused on the internet indeed.

We can guess why this might be the case: the internet offers the potential for immediate gratification and ongoing novelty, which is what the ADHD brain is always looking for.

Of course, guessing only gets us so far. In psychology, doing studies is always preferable to guessing!

ComputerThat’s why I was excited to see a new study from researchers in China looking at internet addiction and ADHD. What’s especially interesting about this study is that it addresses three different questions:

  • Are people with ADHD at higher risk for excessive internet use?
  • If so, does ADHD cause that higher risk?
  • If ADHD does cause that risk, what ADHD symptoms in particular are involved?

The researchers did indeed find a link between ADHD and internet addiction. In order to untangle causality, they surveyed people at two different points in time, six months apart.

They found that having more ADHD symptoms at the beginning of the six months predicted ending the study with more symptoms of internet addiction, but the reverse was not true. In other words, ADHD symptoms were associated with subsequently developing behaviors of excessive internet use, but excessive internet use was not associated with a subsequent rise in ADHD symptoms.

That doesn’t definitively show that ADHD symptoms are what caused the problematic internet use, since there could be other factors involved that weren’t taken into account. But it does suggest that ADHD symptoms anticipate internet addiction more than vice-versa.

To figure out which symptoms might be driving ADHDers’ problematic internet use, the researchers considered two different types of symptoms:

  • Executive functioning deficits, including problems inhibiting responses and keeping information in working memory
  • Motivation deficits, including a strong preference to obtain immediate rewards rather than delay gratification

The researchers grouped the 54 study participants with ADHD (out of 682 total) into three groups: those with executive functioning deficits, those with motivation deficits, and those with both.

Note that this is a different way of dividing ADHD into “subtypes” than the traditional inattentive/hyperactive categorization. Although the DSM classifies people with ADHD based on inattentive vs. hyperactive symptoms, many researchers have suggested that other ways of dividing ADHD into subtypes might be more informative.

In this case, the researchers found that people in the group with motivation deficits (or with both motivation and executive functioning deficits) were especially susceptible to excessive internet use. On average, the ADHDers with motivational deficits tended to see their internet use spiral higher over time. The same was not true for ADHDers with only executive functioning deficits.

Practically, what that seems to suggest is that the motivational side of ADHD is closely related to problematic internet use. It may be that a tendency to prioritize immediate rewards predisposes people with ADHD to have trouble reigning in their time online. Theoretically, then, coping strategies and treatments that specifically address that side of ADHD could also help with excessive internet use.

My take is that motivational symptoms are an aspect of ADHD that we don’t talk about enough. Some researchers have proposed that motivation deficits are a fundamental part of ADHD. More anecdotally, I’ve written on here before about how many of the attention issues ADHDers face tend to be intertwined with motivation issues.

That would seem to mean that learning more about the motivation deficits that often come with ADHD will help us better understand some of the struggles that often come with ADHD – including, going by this study, problems regulating one’s own internet usage!

Image: Flickr/Plymouth District Library



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