Why are more kids being diagnosed with ADHD?

Why are more kids being diagnosed with ADHD?

Story at a glance

  • A recent report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows that more kids are being diagnosed with ADHD than in years past.

  • In 2022, more than 11 percent of children in the U.S. had received the diagnosis, compared to 8-9 percent in 2000.

  • Awareness about the condition, stress during the COVID-19 pandemic and the resulting pressure to make up for lost learning have all played a role in the rise.

A growing number of children in the United States are being diagnosed with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) — what one recent report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) referred to as an “expanding public health concern.”

ADHD diagnoses have been rising for decades. CDC data shows that the share of U.S. children with the condition increased from about 6 percent to 8 percent in 2000 to roughly 9 percent to 10 percent by 2018.

The trend has picked up speed in recent years, with the rate shooting up to just over 11 percent by 2022. A total of 7.1 million kids across the country have now been diagnosed with the disorder at some point, according to the report.

There is no single reason behind the rise in diagnoses, health experts say. But they point to both the growing awareness of the condition’s symptoms and the increased time kids spent at home as COVID-19 shuttered schools and other activities as factors that likely played a role.

“Both increased recognition of ADHD symptoms and increased ADHD symptoms and impairment during the COVID-19 pandemic may have contributed to the higher ADHD prevalence in 2022,” Melissa L. Danielson, a statistician at the CDC’s National Center on Birth Defects and Developmental Disabilities, who helped author the recently released report, wrote in an email to The Hill.

Popular culture has helped introduce Americans to ADHD and some of its symptoms, as shows like “Modern Family,” “How I Met Your Mother,” and “The Simpson” have all featured a character with the condition, one 2022 study notes.

ADHDrelated content is also pervasive on the social platforms X and TikTok, the study says: The hashtag #adhd garnered 11.4 billion views on the latter platform in May of 2022 alone.

“Many people credit these platforms with helping them realize they had the diagnosis and subsequently seeking treatment for it,” the study reads.

But, as with most topics, misinformation about ADHD is common online, the study adds.

Lara Litvinov, a senior psychologist in the ADHD and Behavior Disorders Center at the Child Mind Institute, urged people to not accept everything said about ADHD on TikTok as fact.

“They’re not necessarily giving all the right criteria,” she said. “They are giving criteria that a lot of people with ADHD may have those symptoms and but that doesn’t mean that they have ADHD.”

Knowledge about how ADHD symptoms present themselves in children has also grown in the medical community, experts noted, which has likely resulted in more diagnoses.

For example, mental health care providers are slowing learning how ADHD may present differently in boys and girls, according to George Sachs, a clinical psychologist who specializes in ADHD testing and treatment.

While children with the condition can display hyperactivity regardless of gender, in boys with ADHD it commonly results in them being disruptive in a classroom, while girls may instead be extremely talkative.

Girls with ADHD are also more likely to have “inattentive” symptoms like struggling to focus, forgetfulness or losing things that might be trickier for adults to notice, according to Sachs.

Growing awareness of ADHD prior to the COVID-19 pandemic coupled with many families increased time together during the pandemic could have helped with increased recognition of ADHD symptoms, experts said.

During the pandemic, millions of children were suddenly spending most, if not their entire, of their days inside their homes due to business and school closures.

This could have allowed parents, many of whom were also at home, to more easily notice ADHD symptoms in their children that might have become worse with online learning, according to Danielson.

It is also possible that online learning worsened the symptoms of some children with undiagnosed ADHD,  making them more noticeable to parents, experts added. Research shows that children with ADHD do better in classrooms with structure which many online classes may not provide.

“Parents were at home with their kids, and they were able to see some of these behaviors in a way that they hadn’t seen before,” said Litvinov.

The pandemic was difficult for Americans in general, but took an especially severe toll on the mental health of the nation’s young people. Multiple studies show that rates of depression and anxiety skyrocketed among kids and teens during COVID-19 lockdowns.

One 2022 study found that before the pandemic about one in seven children between the ages of five and 17 reported suffering from a symptom of anxiety or depression at least once a week.

That number grew to about one in six children by late 2020, according to the study.

Some experts believe the rise in ADHD diagnoses arose in part from parents trying to treat other conditions their children suffered from during the pandemic, like depression and anxiety.

Experts also think that increasing ADHD diagnoses stem partly from increased pressure on schools and students to perform.

Since kids have returned to physical classrooms, schools and students alike have faced increasing pressure to make up for lost learning during the pandemic, and many are struggling to do so.

Between 2019 and 2022, students lost more than half a year of learning due to the COVID-19 pandemic. So far, they have only recovered about a third of what they lost in math and even less in reading skills, according to an analysis of standard test scores by researchers from Harvard and Stanford University.

That pressure has caused parents and educators to focus on figuring out why students are not doing well in classes, which could mean more kids are being tested for neurological differences like ADHD, according to Litvinov.

“There’s a lot of pressure on parents and schools to make sure that people are meeting expectations,” she said.

Copyright 2024 Nexstar Media, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

For the latest news, weather, sports, and streaming video, head to The Hill.