Managing Screen Time for Teens with ADHD: 2 Paths to Success

Teenage girl playing video gamesDo you have a teen with attention-deficit hyperactivity (ADHD) who would spend 24 hours a day on his or her phone, tablet, computer, video game system, or other electronic device if he or she could?

Have you unsuccessfully tried setting limits on screen time?

Do you worry about your teen’s inability to regulate screen time on his or her own?

If so, it’s time to rethink how you’re approaching the situation. Individuals with ADHD are especially susceptible to being drawn into the stimulation associated with technology, and may have an extra difficult time regulating and disconnecting from screen time.

What to do?

As a parent, there are two main approaches to regulating screen time:

  1. Set firm limits, use screen time as a reward, and limit screen time further as a consequence.
  2. Help your teen to incorporate screen time into his or her daily schedule, and incorporate other activities that preclude opportunities to engage in excessive screen time.

For the first approach, sit down with your teen and develop a plan together for appropriate lengths of time to use each device on a daily and weekly basis. Rules should be mutually agreeable and put in writing. The short-term benefit of this approach is that screen time gets limited so teens have time for other things and aren’t subjected to the negative consequences of excessive screen time. The long-term drawback is that unless teens learn to internalize these limitations as helpful rather than as parental restrictions, it may be more difficult for them to regulate their screen time when they are on their own.

The second approach is helpful in that it teaches teens how to balance activities that involve screen time with those that don’t. Of course, it can be challenging to find activities that teens are willing to do without technology.

Which approach might be most effective depends on the age of your teen, to what degree he or she needs regulation, and to what extent his or her time can be occupied with other activities that naturally limit screen time.

To illustrate these ideas, let’s look at a theoretical case example that demonstrates incorporating both types of interventions. Jack, 13, comes home after school each day, plays video games, does his homework after excessive prompting from his parents, and then watches television and/or plays games or watches videos on his smartphone. On weekends, he sleeps in and then plays video games for several hours.

Approach 1: Firm Limits

Sit down with Jack, explain that he is spending too much time using technology, and work together toward a compromise on how long he can engage in screen time after school before starting his homework, each evening and on weekends. Specific rules for different types of screen time are important. If agreements can be reached, everything should be written down. If not, parents may need to set limits, communicate them, and write them somewhere the teen can see and refer to. Obviously, enforcing limits and abiding by them may prove difficult and could lead to conflicts.

Approach 2: Find Balance

Provide Jack with a variety of structured and unstructured activities to fill some of his time so he has activities of interest that remove the possibility of excessive screen time. For instance, he could play on a sports team, which likely would have practices once or twice a week and games on weekends. He could try karate, fencing, a club activity, or something else in a group format that meets once or twice a week. Perhaps Jack could volunteer one afternoon a week with an organization of interest or do work around the house (and get paid for it). Another way to fill some time is to reserve one to two days after school where he is required to make plans of some sort. Getting Jack more active gets him more engaged in activities that don’t involve technology, while still leaving a reasonable amount of screen time.

In addition to these main ideas for managing teens’ screen time, here are some factors and suggestions to keep in mind:

  • Regulate your own screen time. If you are always on your phone or other device, you set a bad example for your teen, who may use that example to defend his or her own habits.
  • Develop and encourage family activities to reduce down time that might be used for screen time.
  • Screen time in moderation can be a way for teens to unwind as well as cultivate friendships and interests. It is OK to let them have some screen time—just not 24/7 or to the exclusion of family activities or other obligations.

© Copyright 2016 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Carey A. Heller, PsyD, therapist in Bethesda, Maryland

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • Magda

    Magda

    January 29th, 2016 at 7:40 AM

    We have set some pretty firm limits on screen time with our kids and I know that they probably try to sneak around and get around some of that but I think that they know that ultimately the rules have been set to make them better so they adhere to them. Now when we are not around who knows, but you have to trust them with responsibility at some point to make some wise choices.

  • Tobias

    Tobias

    January 29th, 2016 at 1:05 PM

    I thought that I read once that too much screen can be a little too stimulating for those who already struggle with ADD and ADHD. Truth?

  • Christa L

    Christa L

    January 30th, 2016 at 6:29 AM

    In my experience the firmer the limit against something then the more likely it is that your children will want to sneak around and do it. There is something about it being forbidden that makes it even more enticing to them.

    For us it seems to work better when we can work out some compromise and balance in the house. That may mean me being a little more lenient about something or it could mean that the children have to give up a little to meet me in the middle.
    Either way I find that they feel more respected and that they have a say so when they are asked how we can work together on this and we can have a little more adherence to the rules without them feeling like they are being deprived of something.

  • geoff

    geoff

    January 30th, 2016 at 2:42 PM

    If I am paying the bill then naturally that to me implies that I am the one who gets to say how much screen time there should or should not be.
    Fair?

  • Lloyd S

    Lloyd S

    January 31st, 2016 at 7:03 AM

    i do worry about our children today a whole lot. You have to wonder if the things like all of this technology that we now have that was not here even 20 years ago could in some way be contributing to all sorts of things that are being proven to be harmful to us. Obesity used to not be such an issue, and now it is. ADD and ADHD seem to be newer things that were never around. So how many of these sorts of problems are we really bringing on ourselves, and if that is the case, how do we then backtrack to cure some of it?

  • Greg

    Greg

    January 31st, 2016 at 2:41 PM

    Of course when the kids are a bit younger you feel like you are in charge and have more control over what they can and can’t do.
    But as they get older it has to become a little more give and take otherwise they are really going to resent that control that you hold over them.

  • Garrett

    Garrett

    February 2nd, 2016 at 10:29 AM

    For my wife and i we really base a lot of what we let the kids do on how well they are performing in school. I feel like that is their job, to do well in school, and if they do then they are compensated with things like extra phone or computer time. Those are always the things that I can most readily hold over their head and take away from them if I feel like they are taking away too much from their school performance that we expect. It’s not like they have cars yet so this is the one or two things that give them a lifeline out of the house, and if they do well in school then we tend to let them have as much time as it looks like they can reasonably handle.

  • cheves

    cheves

    February 3rd, 2016 at 1:17 PM

    my house and my rules, that’s the way it is

  • Coleman

    Coleman

    February 4th, 2016 at 3:52 PM

    In some ways do you think that we were all a little better off without all the tech stuff?

    I mean, it was one less thing to worry about, you know?

  • Levi

    Levi

    February 6th, 2016 at 1:04 PM

    If you start enforcing these things early then you have a much easier time keeping them enforced than you do if you start trying to do it as the kids get older. When they are young this will just feel like the norm to them and as they get older, well, it is their habit so there won’t be any need to change that habit. I think that the things that you want your kids to do, the earlier you start out doing that in the house then the easier it is as they become teens.

  • toby

    toby

    February 8th, 2016 at 10:10 AM

    More parents have to look at their own usage of their phones and the compute. How do you expect to preach this to your kids about managing their time wisely and nt being on the computer so much when you show them by example that you are doing the exact same thing? I know that a lot is about do as I say not as I do, but with kids this can be a very tough lesson to hit home unless you are willing to get down in the trenches with them. If they see you being more mindful of your own screen time then there is a pretty good chance that you will have an easier time getting them to be more mindful of their own.

  • Carey Heller, PsyD

    Carey Heller, PsyD

    February 8th, 2016 at 11:40 AM

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

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