Are We a Nation of 'Pseudo-ADD' Sufferers?

June 13, 2005 — -- Americans often have hundreds of television channels to choose from, and high-speed Internet access, e-mail and personal digital assistants keeping them connected -- but if you are so "connected" that you're beginning to feel rather disconnected, you may not be alone, some mental health experts say.

We are becoming a nation of attention deficit disorder sufferers, says Dr. John Ratey, a professor at Harvard Medical School and the author of "Delivered from Distraction."

"We value not spending much time thinking about one thing," Ratey says. "These are hallmark symptoms of people with what we call pseudo-ADD."

A Nation of Multi-Taskers

Hundreds of thousands of children and adolescents have received a clinical ADD diagnosis for an inability to focus and concentrate in school. But what about the non-medical problem of "cultural" ADD?

Being able to multi-task effectively is a prized quality in our society. Take Eileen O'Connor, a former ABC News producer and now a wife, mother of five, law student and non-profit executive. She feels like being able to multi-task is the only way to cram all she needs to do into her hectic days.

"I would go to class, listen to the lecture and on one [computer] screen be taking notes," O'Connor says. "And on another screen, I was on my e-mail, actually e-mailing [my kids] or people in the office."

But Ratey argues that multi-tasking is not as efficient as we might think.

"The brain is not riveted, it's not focused," he says. "You're seeing a lot more noise in the brain. You're using more of your brain to try and pay attention."

One recent study showed that workers don't spend more than three minutes on any given task, and they're usually interrupted every two minutes.

Other research said it takes a person 50 percent longer to complete two tasks done simultaneously than if they were done separately.

In other words, asking your brain to keep hitting pause and play doesn't save time.

Kids in Overdrive

Even busy, supercharged moms like O'Connor worry about kids growing up in overdrive, trying to do a million things at once -- even homework.

Jim Steyer is the chief executive officer and founder of Common Sense Media, a non-profit group that encourages family-friendly entertainment. He says Americans are raising a generation of media-saturated kids.

In fact, the latest figures show kids spend 8½ hours a day using different kinds of media -- from television to computers to video games.

"They're spending too many hours in front of the screen -- either a TV screen or a computer screen -- and it does contribute in some ways to attention deficit disorder," Steyer said.

Video Game Helps Concentration

Some parents are trying to get their kids to refocus by using a video game.

Former teacher Peter Freer invented a concentration game called "Play Attention," which borrows from technology and exercises developed by NASA to sharpen pilots' focus.

To play the game, a person will put on a helmet with sensors attached to it. The goal is to use your powers of concentration to make a virtual alien rise to the top of the screen. If you get distracted, the alien will fall down the screen.

Freer says that after logging 40 to 60 hours playing the game over several weeks, children and adults showed permanent improvement in their attention spans.

"The more [you] do this, the better you'll be able to do it at will," Freer says.

But do you really need a video game to improve concentration? O'Connor and her family are determined to slow down a bit and enjoy the simpler things.

"A typical day is nuts," O'Connor said. "But then there are times when we say, 'Whoa, we just gotta stop here.' We do stop with a family dinner, and I think that sort of brings us back to reality."