How to Be Your Child’s Brain: ADHD and Digital Addiction
I wrote about the toxic combination of digital addiction and ADHD. The question is — what can parents do? We know the problem. What we need is a solution.
I have 2 kids with ADHD. I have been fighting the digital addiction war in my home for over a decade. I have to. Because the consequences for digitally addicted ADHD kids can be dire.
The constant stimuli of the online world does not require the child with ADHD to work hard to sustain attention. Video games make the task easy with all the lights and noises and prizes. Very satisfying — and very different from real life.
So, a child with ADHD feels increasingly uncomfortable in the real world and craves escape into the virtual reality of online gaming. The pull of the game overrides the sense of responsibility to work hard on their education. Homework is rushed through or forgotten altogether, and academic performance goes downhill.
Social skills is another problem for children with ADHD, mainly due to their impulsivity — speaking and acting without first thinking of the consequences. The social cost of impulsive behavior can be high. Although our public schools have made remarkable progress in the prevention of bullying, children can still be cruel and unforgiving when it comes to social mistakes.
The immature impulsive child with ADHD will not be attacked, he will be… politely ignored. Excluded. Avoided.
Well, that is not much of a problem within the artificial social circles of video games, where there is neither face-to-face contact, nor non-verbal feedback for bad behavior. There is an equally artificial sense of connection and belonging that the child may lack in real life. With more time spent in gaming chats, children with ADHD have less opportunity to practice real-world communication skills which are already underdeveloped due to their condition.
Studies show that regular physical activity reduces the severity of ADHD symptoms. The only physical activity required for gaming is moving the thumbs on the game controller, the only reason to get up is to walk to the pantry without taking your eyes off the iPad, to reach in for more chips!
Our impulsive, immature and oppositional kids with ADHD are also unhealthy and obese.
Sleep deprivation is detrimental for any brain, and for ADHD brain especially so. It can be difficult for a child with ADHD to calm down and go to sleep, and being overstimulated with screen time before bed does not help. Oftentimes, children with ADHD have to take stimulant medications like Vyvanse for their condition. It helps them concentrate at school, but it is an amphetamine — a controlled substance, illegal without a prescription. Common side effects include trouble sleeping — in position number one.
Remember, the street name for amphetamine is “speed”.
“Anything you say can and will be used against you”
Another dangerous side effect of impulsivity that comes with ADHD: these children are more likely to engage in risky behaviors online and/or be exposed to inappropriate content. Kids with ADHD are not fully equipped to think about the risks of sharing their personal information with strangers online, which makes them more vulnerable to predators. They can also impulsively post their own questionable content, and ruin their reputations forever.
Teenagers have always made stupid mistakes. That is what makes them teenagers, and is developmentally normal — their brains are not fully developed yet to calculate long-term consequences of their actions, and at the same time they are actively trying to break away from the control of their parents and assert themselves in the world as their own person. Of course, they screw up. Teenagers have done it for hundreds of years, in every generation, and eventually grew out of it. It’s what growing up is all about — learning from your mistakes.
But now teenagers leave a permanent record of their mistakes online, and their mess-ups are criminalized.
The cost can be high: a mistake from teenage years can derail the rest of their life. Once something is posted on the Internet, it takes a life of its own and cannot be erased. It does not belong to you anymore. And guess what — society does not accept “I didn’t mean it!” as an excuse. Mean remarks online can result in a bullying label and expulsion from school. Sexting can earn teenagers a permanent sex offender record — both boys and girls. Jokes about weapons and shootings can result in an actual arrest and a criminal record. Sharing inappropriate memes cost 10 students their Harvard admission.
Colleges and prospective employers will Google you and check your Facebook profile — and if they see anything they don’t like, you are not going to be accepted or hired, even if reputation-compromising content was posted decades earlier. The conclusion is clear — anything you say online can and will be used against you. That’s what the police is required to tell the person being arrested. The safest behavior at that point is to remain silent and not incriminate yourself.
Except when the offense had been committed online, it’s too late to remain silent. You are already condemned.
You are Your Child’s Brain
In view of such catastrophic risks that digital media poses for children with ADHD, there is no easy way out — it is your job to be your child’s prefrontal cortex.
Yes, it is likely that you will not have much of a life, but if you love them, I see no other choice.
YOU NEED TO BUY THEM TIME TO GIVE THEIR BRAIN A CHANCE TO MATURE.
Lack of self-control is a symptom when it comes to ADHD, and as much as you want your child to learn to make their own wise choices, until their brain catches up, chances are you have to do it for them. Your children will not impose screen time limits on themselves voluntarily. If you do not install some form of healthy boundaries on screen time, they will be playing computer games until their brains boil, forgetting to eat and sleep and go to the bathroom.
Homework? What homework?!
Once you impose screen time limits, assume good intent initially, but remember that ADHD is not your friend.
Expect your child to sabotage your efforts and lie, cheat and steal to get their devices back.
It’s not their fault, they cannot adequately plan for the future because of their diagnosis.
Imagine, you leave a full cookie jar in your pantry and tell them that you will give them one cookie per day (or 1 hour of screen time per day). The next day you discover that the cookie jar is empty (they are on their phone in their bedroom at 2am on a school night). How many times does this need to happen before you remove the cookie jar (take the phone away)?
What About Therapy?
Would professional therapy help manage your child’s screen time addiction? Maybe. But Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) — a very effective form of therapy that normally works well for difficult behaviors — instructs their therapists to disclose that it may have limited effect on a child with ADHD. That’s what the therapist told us when we took our son to see her.
The child will agree with the therapist during the session — and promptly forget everything they talked about. ADHD brain is not equipped to retain and retrieve information to self-regulate behavior.
In fact, our therapist recommended that a parent, not a child, would attend the sessions and be trained on the techniques for encouraging good behaviors and discouraging bad ones. There seems to be no way out from doing the hard work of parenting! Bummer.
So it is particularly important to implement an effective screen-time management system when your child has been diagnosed with ADHD, because — let’s face it — you need to protect them from themselves.
Tools and Strategies for ADHD Screen Time Management
For a child with a neurological diagnosis, screen-time management needs to be an external form of help, and as such it falls within the category of assistive technology.
Assistive Technology (AT) is defined as any equipment or software designed to help people overcome challenges or disabilities so they can learn, communicate, and function better. An audiobook is assistive technology for someone with dyslexia. A wheelchair is AT for people with mobility issues. Your day planner is assistive technology for organizing your life. Smartphone apps assist us in everything these days — from meditation to — ironically, screen time management.
Children with ADHD need a crutch for their ability to self-regulate, which is impaired or non-existent.
Yes, their self-control needs crutches. Because it’s broken.
A person with a broken leg cannot walk without crutches, and we don’t expect them to. For parents of children with special needs, removing the temptation for digital media overuse through effective screen time management techniques is a much more realistic strategy than expecting these kids to do it on their own. Such expectations would be unrealistic, and would lead to unnecessary conflict and damage to the relationship.
Here are the things that worked for our family.
- Establish family rules to limit screen time for your child. For example, screen time only starts after all homework and chores are completed (and after the parent has performed quality control!), and is limited to one or two hours a day. American Academy of Pediatrics Family Media Plan tool is an excellent place to start. There are plenty of great books on the subject.
- Write down a detailed schedule for them listing all activities they need to complete before and after school, micromanaged down to “brush your teeth” and “make your bed” level, and use it as a guide to structure their day and keep them organized. Time management and organizational skills are not the strong suit for a child with ADHD. “Yes, you can have your iPad as soon as A, B and C on your list are completed”.
- Use a timer and multiple warnings to ease transitions off screens and reduce tech tantrums. Build in screen time breaks to prevent overstimulation (chances are your KIDS will set the timer to make sure those breaks do not exceed the pre-agreed time!).
- Enable screen-free alternatives. Kids pick up a book or head outside to play when screens are off!
- Spend time doing things together! You may need to devote more time to your children than parents ever did in the past, but take them on trips, to museums, games, theatres, bike rides, hikes, restaurants, amusement parks, beaches, farms, gym, you name it! You may feel like you don’t have any time for yourself, but isn’t quality time with your child worth it?
- Keep them busy doing better stuff! In my personal experience, overscheduling kids with extracurricular activities works really well despite its bad reputation! After all, if all they want to do in their free time is stare at screens, the less free time the better.
- Use passwords, parental controls, screen time management apps and screen time management devices.
- Control distractions during homework. Phones should be put away, TV or any other devices should be turned off. If the child is doing homework on the computer (most likely these days), check that he/she is not playing online games or watching Youtube videos instead. We have a chromebook devoted exclusively to homework, where everything but Google classroom is blocked. We also requested paper-based homework from school, when available.
- Enforce tech-free downtime an hour before bedtime. Remove devices at night to prevent unauthorized use when the rest of the family is sleeping — yes, it happens quite often.
- Know what they do on their screens and make sure they know that you know! Perform random inspections to make sure they are behaving safely online and are not exposed to inappropriate content. Put content filters in place on all devices kids use.
- Keep all tech in a common area, like the living room or the kitchen. Do not put computers or TVs in kids’ bedrooms, and take phones away at night.
Digital Addiction Risk Factors
Risk factor #1: Young brain
It is much harder to break an addiction if it has been formed at a young age.
Solutions: Delay giving your child a smartphone as long as possible. Wait Untill 8th campaign encourages parents to wait until at least 8th grade before giving children a smartphone. Use a dumb phone if necessary. Limit the amount of total screen time spent across devices.
Risk factor #2: ADHD diagnosis
People with ADHD are predisposed for addiction. A child with ADHD is more likely to become addicted to substances or behaviors, including addiction to digital media.
Solutions: Limit the time your child spends on addictive screen-time activities like computer games. 2 hours a day seems to be the most recommended upper limit. Be vigilant — check regularly that your child does not develop workarounds to break your screen-time rules and steal screen time behind your back.
Risk factor #3: Addictive technology
Digital media is intentionally designed to be addictive to exploit the weaknesses of the human brain to maximize screen time. By doing this, tech companies extract the maximum amount of value from the individual by exposing them to advertising and collecting their data for sale.
Solutions: Not all screen time is created equal. Games like Fortnite are extremely addictive — limit those, and encourage your child to play more educational and less violent games. Turn off notifications on all the apps, they are there to hijack attention and make your child grab their phone and respond immediately. Limit social media channels your child uses to one or two — or nothing if they are younger. Place daily time limits on the apps to prevent obsessive binging on particular digital media like Snapchat. Remove autoplay on Youtube and Netflix.
The dangers of digital media overuse for ADHD children are real. A parent’s love is their only line of defense.
Her research on the relationship between technology and psychology seeks to reveal how digital behavior manipulation affects human wellbeing.