If you’re the parent of a child who spends hours each day playing video games, watching YouTube videos, or checking out friends’ social media posts, you’ve probably wondered at times whether all of this screen time is problematic or if it’s just part of growing up in the 21st century. While all kids benefit from reasonable limits around screen time, kids with ADHD may need stricter limits than most to prevent them from becoming addicted to their screens.
ADHD and Screen Addiction
Research shows that kids with ADHD are at high risk for developing screen addiction. In fact, it’s estimated that up to 25% of kids and teens with ADHD suffer from some form of screen addiction. Why are kids with ADHD at increased risk? The constant simulation and reinforcement that comes from fast paced video games, videos, and even social media sites triggers a release of dopamine in the brain – the same reward chemical that is implicated in other addictions (food, drugs, gambling, etc.). The brains of kids and adults with ADHD are especially sensitive to this dopamine release, and as a result, have a harder time disengaging from triggering activities than individuals without ADHD.
What are the Signs of Screen Addiction?
How can you tell if your child is actually addicted to screens, or just really enjoys spending time on his or her iPad or playing video games? Start by thinking back to times when you have tried to set screen time limits. How has your child reacted when you put the limits in place? Most kids will be disappointed and upset, but kids with a screen problem will quickly escalate verbally and sometimes physically. They will act as though their world has just been crushed, and will try just about any tactic to their screen time back. They will often become very sneaky in their efforts to get back in front of a screen, and will typically lie when confronted about their behavior. Children with a screen addiction prefer playing videogames or going online much more than any other activity. In fact, they may seem to no longer truly enjoy any activity that isn’t screen-related. As a result, their relationships with friends and family and their grades at school begin to suffer.
How Do You Help Your Child Break the Addiction?
There isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach to screen addiction. However, there are four basic principles that apply to everyone:
With these two steps in place, your path forward will depend on the age of your child and his or her level of screen addiction. If you have a younger child with a relatively mild problem, then putting firm limits into place (e.g., 30 minutes of iPad time a day) and sticking to them despite the behavior outbursts, will help dramatically. In addition, if your child has not started playing videogames yet, then do not let him or her start now. In my experience, the most severe cases of screen addiction among kids and teens with ADHD all involved videogames. With any type of addiction, the best strategy is prevention.
If you have an older child or teen with a moderate or severe screen problem, then intervening is more difficult. Kids and teens who are addicted to screens rarely have any insight into their problem, so talking to them about their behavior and encouraging change is very challenging. It’s best to work with a child and adolescent cognitive behavioral (CBT) therapist who has experience treating screen addictions. A good therapist will work closely with both you and your child to set limits on screen use at home, and help your child learn to enjoy activities that don’t involve their phone, tablet, or gaming console.
Screen addiction is a very real problem for many children with ADHD, and it’s not something that will simply get better on its own. Look out for the signs of screen addiction and get help if you think your child is struggling to manage healthy limits around screen time.
Mary Rooney, Ph.D., is a licensed clinical psychologist in the Department of Psychiatry at the University of California San Francisco. Dr Rooney is a researcher and clinician specializing in the evaluation and treatment of ADHD and co-occurring behavioral, anxiety, and mood disorders. A strong advocate for those with attention and behavior problems, Dr. Rooney is committed to developing and providing comprehensive, cutting edge treatments tailored to meet the unique needs of each child and adolescent. Dr. Rooney's clinical interventions and research avenues emphasize working closely with parents and teachers to create supportive, structured home and school environments that enable children and adolescents to reach their full potential. In addition, Dr. Rooney serves as a consultant and ADHD expert to Huntington Learning Centers.
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