Attention Deficit Disorder and Internet/Screen Addiction.

Internet Addiction, Executive Functioning and ADHD
Executive Functioning, ADHD and Internet/screen addiction

Internet Addiction is a growing problem in our society, and people with attention and other “executive functioning” difficulties may be particularly vulnerable.

These are some of the brain functions which we call “Executive Functioning”:


Working memory (keeping what you need to remember in mind)

Organization skills

Controlling impulses to act (also controlling  impulsive “jumping to conclusions” )

Getting going on tasks you may not want to start

Monitoring how well you are doing on a task and using the information to change your strategy

Prioritizing your tasks and making plans

Controlling your emotions (not overreacting)

Flexibility (the ability to change your plan in response to a new situation)

You do not have to have Attention Deficit Disorder to have EF problems.  For example, a person with poor working memory and organizational skills would not necessarily meet the diagnostic criteria for ADD or ADHD. But he or she could still benefit from learning skills to compensate for the EF impairment.  For the client with ADD/ADHD, medication is the primary treatment, but most people with ADD will still need help in compensating for EF issues.

EF can improve as the brain matures.  However, our modern world demands a much higher level of EF skills than was historically necessary for most people.  We have much more physical “stuff” and much more information that we need to organize than people did in the past.  We are also bombarded with competing demands for our attention, many of which have been designed specifically to “trap” us into acting according to the best interests of someone else, rather than ourselves. Escape and avoidance are available at the click of a mouse.  This is a problem for a very large number of people without EF problems, but it is particularly likely to be a trap for people ADD/ADHD.

If you have problems with attention or getting going on tasks, you will find it extra difficult to avoid being drawn in by fascinating but irrelevant material in the Internet.  (Porn is a subset of this, but a big issue in itself.) Because the distracting Internet material (including social media) is gratifying, its use can easily develop into a behavioral addiction.  So now the person with ADD has much more difficulty getting anything done.  Anxiety and depression can easily develop (if they were not present already).

When I treat a client like this, I work on the addictive behavior, the anxiety and the depression at the same time as the attention/EF problems.  We identify triggers for Internet abuse, and I teach coping skills for the unpleasant feelings that accompany getting “sober” from any addiction.   I teach the client to “avoid avoidance” – to avoid the escapism that can easily be triggered when he or she is working on the Internet, and which reinforces anxiety and depression

There is a specific CBT treatment for ADD/ADHD in adults  in the “Treatments that Work” series, “Mastering your Adult Attention Deficit Disorder” by Safren and others.   The client workbook is a great buy for anyone with EF issues. (It is available on Amazon.  Be sure to get the workbook, not the “Therapist Guide”.) The workbook teaches specific skills to compensate for EF difficulties, in a clear, organized way that can be adapted to your own needs.  Having these skills can help people who are struggling with Internet abuse.

“Mastering Your Adult ADHD”, by Steven Safren, Susan Sprich, and Carol Missing,”Treatments that Work” series, Oxford University Press.