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Teens, Screens, and ADHD.

Updated: Sep 21, 2023


Is your teen with ADHD unable to separate from their cellphone?


Dear Rolynda,


I need some guidance because I am running out of ideas and patience. My teen with ADHD spends on average 8 hours a day on their cellphone. We laid out the rules and talked about expectations, yet my teen still can't put it down to participate in family time, chores, school work, or anything that they aren't really interested in. This causes a lot of arguments and conflict in our household and I am actually really worried about the amount of time they spend on it. But, I don't know how to change it now. Do I take it away permanently? Is it too late to help my kid?


You aren't alone here. As a society, we are struggling to manage cellphones and screen time: adults, teens, and kids are on screens more than ever before. Workplaces, public education, institutions, and homes have been changed by technology and screens - whether this is for better or worse is debatable. The more important aspect is this: As society learns more about screen time & social media, and the effects on brains, brain development in children, and mental health, the need to make changes in our habits becomes more and more urgent.


According to the Canadian Paediatric Society, "The COVID-19 pandemic has increased screen time use among children of all ages, including those under 2 years old. Children under 5 years old are exposed to more screens than ever before, including televisions, computers, gaming consoles, smartphones and tablets." The article also points out that between home and child care or school, time on screens adds up quickly for our kids. And, as pointed out by Laura Korhonen in her article on kids' screens time during COVID, "More children own digital devices with almost continuous access to the Internet and users are getting younger. This use, together with improved algorithms that constantly provide new, and individually targeted, content, makes it challenging to shift the focus to non‐digital alternatives." Translation: screen time is increasing in younger age groups and it is getting harder and harder to get kids to transition into other activities because of how algorithms are targeting the user.


So, what does this all mean for kids? Well, if it is hard for adults to navigate screens time, social media, and algorithms, then we must acknowledge how difficult it is for kids to manage it. And for a variety of reasons, many of them are left to manage it on their own! Leaving kids to manage screen time, or what they are consuming, sets them up for failure and isn't fair to them. They miss out on many non-screen opportunities that can be important for them in the future when parents are not involved in monitoring screens.There are implications later in their life. Approaching young adulthood, they have few experiences in their toolbox to compare to and default to screens for socializing, entertainment, and a way to escape stressors. Moreover, fast forward 5-7 years, and now they are expected to function as adults who are capable of managing their wellbeing, with few experiences in their adolescence to draw from except screens. Korhonen explains, "Children need real‐life interplay with adults and peers if they are to develop self‐control, emotional and behavioural regulations and social skills. Therefore, parents should establish sufficient screen free periods each day and ensure that children get the recommended amount of sleep and physical activity." When this happens, parents are helping build their kids' toolboxes for adulthood.


All of this adds up to a simple point: adults need to be responsible for managing the kids' screen time. Effectively.


So, what does this mean for kids with ADHD. It means the need for adult intervention is even more urgent and necessary. Parents need to be responsible for supervising, scheduling, role modelling, and creating non-screen opportunities. It is too hard for kids to manage.... and this means it is nearly impossible with kids who have ADHD to manage this on their own.


There are many reasons why it is harder for kids with ADHD to manage screens.

Here are two:

  1. The dopamine release is fast and frequent with screen time. It hits the ADHD brain and says, "Ohhh. That was good. More please!" This makes it so hard for those kids to stop, disconnect, and transition into something not as enjoyable or stimulating.

  2. Frontal lobe development is slower in those with ADHD and will affect self-control and executive functioning.

It is MORE difficult for kids with ADHD to regulate their screen time, than their peers. Dr. Russell Barkley reports in his book, 12 Principles for Raising a Child with ADHD, if you take the chronological age of the child and reduce it by 30%, you get an estimate of their developmental level in executive functioning and this helps you have a more accurate view of their capabilities in day-to-day functioning. The 30% rule means your 14 year old is approximately 11-ish years old developmentally. It is essential to remember this rule when thinking of expected behaviours, emotional regulation, or executive function skill development. So - right now, think of your child. Take their current age and subtract 3 years. Are they capable of managing impulses to make good decisions about screen time on their own? Likely, your answer is, "No way."


So, I want to tell you: You have to be their frontal lobe. You have to help them manage the impulsivity and the hits of dopamine from the fast images, sounds, likes, and interactions.


MAKING CHANGES

Alrighty - down to the really good stuff and what this parent was looking for: It is not ever too late to make changes in your parenting or to create new systems in your house. The following recommendations are for parents of kids with ADHD, and share with your friends because all other parents could benefit from using them, too.


  1. Expect that your kid will agree to the rules - and forget. And try to negotiate. And get big emotions. And lie. And cheat. It isn't purposeful - they have a hard time with foresight and won't think about how their actions will affect them in the future. (This is true to neurotypical kids, too. Ages 10 -12 can only anticipate 8 -12 hours into the future, ages 13-15 a few days ahead, and late adolescence can anticipate a few weeks ahead.) They are going to mess up. You can be compassionate and still refer to the rules or system you've put in place.

  2. Role model your own screen time usage. Show them other ways you spend time, especially your free time. This includes not keeping your cellphone in your room at night, putting it down 2 hours before going to bed, and not going on it during your time together. For example, no phones out at meals, even in a restaurant. The goal here is to create opportunities for your kid to realize they CAN do something else and it is okay to be bored, or unstimulated.

  3. Screen time should be limited to 1-2 hours a day.

  4. Screen time is separate from doing homework. No screens until homework is done.

  5. Don't take away screen time for a long time - one day or two at most. Let them earn it back.

  6. Daily physical activity needs to be a requirement for screen privileges. Most tweens and teens are not getting the daily amount of physical activity required. Do you know what it is? 1 hour of physical movement each day and daily walking around school or to/from school doesn't count. Neither does PE class.

  7. You will need a system. You might run through a few systems before you find one that works.

  8. One you have a system, you aren't home-free. You will have to regularly check in and monitor your kid. The frequency will depend how old they are developmentally and can be part of the contract or plan.

  9. Following through on the rules and consequences will be essential. You must be consistent and predictable.

  10. Maintain calm if they are angry, or having big emotions. Refer to the system and don't make anything personal.

  11. Have frequent conversations with them about screen time, social media and cellphones, for example: what is difficult, what do they like/not like, where might they need more support, what feels unsafe online, when should the phone not be on or around, how is it to leave it turned off...

  12. If you aren't ready to take on this responsibility, it is okay! However, it does means your kid shouldn't have a cellphone until you are prepared to invest time and effort into managing it.


OPTIONS FOR A SYSTEM

One of them is to create a family media plan. The American Academy of Pediatrics has a tool that's meant to be a framework of conversation to help you establish healthy boundaries around digital media use in your home. Click here.


Another option: a cellphone contract. A contract is an excellent way to remove conflict between you and your kid and let the contract become the enforcer. Also, it is a great tool to empower your kids, encourage them to take responsibility, and show you believe in them. They will learn to self-monitor, plan, and organize their usage. all executive function skills they need to develop and practice. Click here for an example of a cellphone contract from Understood.org.


Another option would be to earn time on screens through a point system. Cellphones, video games, computers, and social media are privileges earned through work that develops executive function skills and goal-directed persistence. A point system inherently builds in the immediate rewards, feedback, and consequences kids with ADHD need to help them develop executive function skills and to be held accountable. There will be many facets of their adult lives where they will be held accountable through a contract or system of expectations. By doing this in their youth, you are helping them understand how it all works. Dr. Russell Barkley talks about the parts of a token system here.


And for one more option, I found this article on ADDitudemag that proposes an Ethics Manual for teen's electronics. Dr. Wes Crenshaw proposes an ethics manual as a system to help teens use screen time effectively. He lays it all out in the article. Have a look here and decide if this approach could work for you. I do not think it would work for kids under the age of 14. I personally like how he suggests to sit down and have a conversation when the teen has messed up and how he takes a hard line on no electronics during homework and bed time.


All in all, I encourage you to explore systems to regulate screen time and figure out which one works for you so you can put a system for screen time in place as soon as possible. You, as the adult, are responsible to take the reins on this one, and to monitor and guide it. You wouldn't let your kid start driving alone just because they got a Learner's license, so why let them go it alone with a phone?


Let me know what works for you or what problems you still have with screens in the comments!



SOURCES:

Barkley, R. A. (2022, May 30). The ADHD report: Vol 30, no 5. 18 Ways to Make Token Systems More Effective for ADHD Children and Teens. Retrieved April 2, 2023, from https://guilfordjournals.com/toc/adhd/30/5


Canadian Paediatric Society. (2022, November). Screen Time and young children. Caring for kids. Retrieved April 2, 2023, from https://caringforkids.cps.ca/handouts/behavior-and-development/screen-time-and-young-children


Crenshaw, W. (2022, February 17). Brilliant idea alert! an "ethics manual" for Your Teen's Electronics. ADDitude. Retrieved April 2, 2023, from https://www.additudemag.com/teens-and-technology-screen-time-rules/?src=embed_ss


Korhonen, Laura. “The good, the bad and the ugly of children´s screen time during the COVID-19 pandemic.” Acta paediatrica (Oslo, Norway : 1992)vol. 110,10 (2021): 2671-2672. Retrieved April 2, 2023, from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC8444888/


Morin, A. (2023, January 5). Cell phone contracts for kids. Understood. Retrieved April 2, 2023, from https://www.understood.org/en/articles/download-cell-phone-contracts-for-kids

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