If you frequently battle about screen time with your kids (don’t we all!) but want to learn how to enforce healthy boundaries, you’re certainly not alone.
Most parents are concerned about their child’s screen time. But parents and caregivers seem to have an extra challenge in helping kids with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) manage screen time.
“Electronic usage is part of daily life and is not inherently problematic, and as with many other issues, it is an issue of moderation,” says Mary Jane Weiss, PhD, BCBA-D, LABA, of Endicott College.
While screen time is associated with some benefits and some adverse side effects, it’s important for parents to examine their child’s screen use, the impact it’s having on the child, and the child’s overall behavior and well-being.
One positive effect of screen time for children with ADHD, says Weiss, is a high level of engagement in a preferred activity.
“Many children enjoy screen time, and it can be used as a reward for other less preferred tasks (such as homework completion), and depending on the activity, screen time can also be instructive,” she says.
For visual learners, Weiss says that engaging in academic tasks in virtual format may be more appealing and may even be more effective. It’s also a social outlet for many kids with ADHD, which can be beneficial when used appropriately.
However, one area that can be negatively impacted by screen time is sleep, says Khadijah Booth Watkins, MD, MPH, associate director of the Clay Center for Young Healthy Minds at Massachusetts General Hospital. And for many kids with ADHD, sleep is already a challenge.
“This is particularly important for kids with ADHD as impaired sleep can worsen symptoms such as attention, concentration, and frustration tolerance,” she explains.
Not getting enough sleep can impact us all, and it’s important to make sure that our kids are getting enough sleep.
Screen time can also exacerbate concentration issues and mood disruptions for children with developmental disorders, as well as those prone to having anxiety issues, says Teodora Pavkovic, a nationally recognized psychologist and digital wellness expert at the K-12 EdTech company Linewize.
One reason, says Pavkovic, is that so much screen-based content is incredibly overstimulating for a child’s nervous system. Plus, children can find it very difficult to disengage from technology once they have become engaged.
Screen time has its place in a child’s life. However, how you go about enforcing healthy boundaries and approaching balance can increase cooperation and reduce arguments that often occur when kids are told to put a device down.
“We want to make sure our kids are striking a good and healthy balance between screen time and doing the other tasks that are developmentally appropriate and necessary such as extracurricular activities, spending time with friends, completing homework, family time, and so on,” says Booth Watkins.
With that in mind, here are 10 tips for helping kids with ADHD manage screen time.
Getting buy-in from everyone in the family is an essential first step when teaching kids how to manage screen time.
One way to get off on the right foot is to create a family media plan together. This includes conversations, brainstorming sessions, and considering ideas from each family member.
Don’t be afraid to be creative and think of ways to motivate and incentives to use to get your kids excited about the plan.
If you need help getting started, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) has an excellent guide and interactive tool for creating a family media plan. They also have a media time calculator you can use once the plan is developed and implemented.
2. Make the guidelines age-appropriate
Screen time guidelines and boundaries should be age-appropriate. There are several recommendations online to help parents and guardians determine limits based on the types of content being consumed.
According to the AAP, there should be no screen time at all for children until 18 to 24 months, except for video chatting.
Kids ages 2 to 5 should be allowed less than 1 hour a day.
When it comes to older kids, the AAP recommends that parents and guardians negotiate limits and boundaries with their kids around screens. This is where the family media plan comes in handy.
3. Set a schedule
Boundaries and consistency are crucial for children with ADHD. To help with this, Pavkovic recommends setting up a consistent screen schedule (in collaboration with your child, if they’re old enough) and minimizing their ability to move between too many different games or platforms during this time.
“Children with ADHD tend to find it hard enough to fight off distractions, so families are encouraged to really help them succeed with that as much as possible,” she says.
4. Give a warning
Just before screen time starts coming to an end, Pavkovic suggests providing some time prompts in a calm way and avoid ending screen time abruptly.
Some children do find time-based limitations too difficult to adhere to, though, so in those cases, she recommends developing an achievement-based strategy like “when you win x-number of gold coins in the game, you can stop.”
But of course, families will want to make sure that this remains within reasonable time limits.
For older kids, you can give a warning several minutes before screen time ends, with the goal of teaching the child to self-monitor with a timer, then go in and ask 5 minutes before the end of screen time, “How much time is left?” This will help the child learn to self-monitor, which is part of learning self-control.
5. Minimize the length of screen time
“Children with ADHD appear to benefit from shorter periods of screen-based activities more frequently,” says Pavkovic.
For example, 40 minutes per day, 5 days a week, instead of 2 hours per day, twice a week. However, she says families are encouraged to tweak screen time to find a solution that shows the best behavioral outcome for their own child and then stick to this consistently.
6. Take advantage of parental tools and apps
Blocking apps, timers, and other tools are a parent’s best friend. Not only do they eliminate the verbal back and forth between adults and kids when it’s time to power off, but they also help parents keep tabs on what their kids are watching, doing, and viewing online.
Blocking apps and tools allow parents to turn off the internet connection to designated devices or block certain websites at specified times. Some internet providers and systems have their own programs you can use. Otherwise, there are a ton of free and subscription-based options such as:
7. Follow up screen time with physical activity
Teaching kids healthy behaviors about screen time can also translate to healthy behaviors in life. That’s why Pavkovic recommends pairing up a screen time activity with some kind of physical activity so that the physical activity follows the tech-based one.
For example, after screen time is up, your child can choose from a list of physical activities like playing outside, bike riding, shooting baskets, dancing, or riding a scooter.
8. Be selective with screen time
Pavkovic says to be very careful about cutting out or reducing screen time that is beneficial to your child.
“If your child is able to socialize through technology or enjoys being physically active by playing online games or following exercise tutorials, find other screen time activities that could be curbed instead,” she says.
This is also a great opportunity to encourage using screens for creativity, not just for consuming media.
9. Out of sight, out of mind
When not in use, put all screens away. This applies to parents, too.
“Our kids take their cues from us, and we need to be deliberate in modeling healthy screen time and limits,” says Booth Watkins.
She points out that setting screen-free time and electronic-free zones that the entire family will adhere to can also be a good way to manage screen time in a way that doesn’t feel punitive. The kid won’t feel as targeted if the rule applies to the household.
For instance, no phones at the table for meals, or designate certain days and times as screen-free.
With that said, Booth Watkins says that parents may need to help kids think of other ways to spend their time.
“I often suggest, in advance, create a menu of activities that your child can choose to engage in, such as read a book, arts and crafts, play outside, play a board game, or other agreed-upon activities,” she explains.
Additionally, removing all devices from bedrooms at least 30 to 60 minutes before bedtime is critical for sleep. Plus, too much time spent on devices at night can negatively impact your child at school the next day.
Finally, consider storing all screens in a location that only parents or guardians are aware of. This reduces the chance that your child will get up in the middle of the night to look for their device.
10. Reframe how you think of screen limits
Rather than think of this as screen time management, Booth Watkins says that we should think of this as helping our kids to develop healthy habits and healthy relationships with screen time.
“Kids with ADHD may need more support in helping them to internalize the new schedules and structure, especially since they may struggle in a greater way when it comes to tolerating delayed gratification,” she explains.
Investing time in a plan for screen time, fostering conversations about tech use, and working with your child to establish healthy habits can reduce conflict and encourage positive outcomes.
Technology use is a part of daily life, and helping kids to learn responsible tech use is an important skill.