Too Much Time Online? Suggestions for Limiting Media Use

 ADHD Weekly September 20, 2018

In addition to the family TV and computer, children often have personal TVs in their bedrooms, many children and teens have their own tablets, cellphones, and media players. There are computers in school for instruction and homework, there are TVs in restaurants and waiting rooms.  And then there is the cultural phenomenon of Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, Minecraft, PokemonGO—and this year’s big excitement, Fortnite.

How much is too much? When our children and teens are also coping with ADHD symptoms, where do we set the limits they need in order to learn how to properly manage all these digital devices?

Understanding the challenge of digital media

“Screen time problems run along a spectrum of severity,” Martin L. Kutscher, MD, and Natalie Rosin, CASAMHC, tell readers of Attention magazine in Too Much Screen Time? “At the mildest end are the problems we perceive among typical, well-functioning children and teens, such as texting multiple times an hour or ignoring friends and family at get-togethers in favor of communicating elsewhere with their smartphone. At the most severe end, there are those who suffer from what can be called a true Internet addiction: an inability to control one’s digital or Internet behavior despite significant resultant problems such as falling grades, withdrawal from friends and activities, and significant family turmoil.”

We’ve passed the point where the answer is as simple as turning off the TV. Digital devices are part of how we read (Kindle), socialize (Facebook), and work with colleagues and fellow students (Slack).  Starting in first grade, many schools use computers for instruction and homework, requiring students to log into school websites.

For children and teens affected by ADHD, the difficulties that come with overuse of digital media are compounded by the symptoms of ADHD, especially distractibility, impulsivity, and novelty-seeking. Cyberbullying—either as one who is bullied or one who engages in bullying behavior—is a constant concern; unfortunately, many children with ADHD are targets of both in-person and cyberbullying.

Social media is meant to be attention-consuming. It is also where the majority of young people, middle school students and older, go to socialize with friends.

Addressing screen time together

Screen time and digital media use is not the cause of ADHD or its symptoms, but overuse of media and ADHD symptoms can make each worse for an individual person. The novelty of finding something new—a friend’s updated status, a video game treasure, a new video to watch, a character to capture and add to the collect, and so on—delivers a small burst of neurotransmitters to the brain. The brain, in turn, finds this a desirable response, either causing the experience of feeling in control or having more attention, or an experience of satisfaction and pleasure. The positive response prompts our brains to seek out the pleasurable behavior again. 

Our children cannot avoid media use, but we can address media overuse and set up healthy technology habits.
  • Make media a family affair. Practice good digital device use by limiting when and where devices can be used. Have your children see you following those limits. For example: no cellphones at dinner, no tablets or TVs in the bedroom. Some families will turn off all devices a half an hour or more before bedtime, while others find that selecting a day on the weekend when electronics are turned off helps to teach limited use. Make it a rule that when you are talking with each other, devices are ignored even when they beep for attention.
  • Know where they go. Make it a family rule that email addresses and passwords are shared with parents and that they are “friends” with you on all social media accounts. Regularly check cellphones for text messages and messenger apps for use. The goal is not that you are checking up or snooping, but it is to be aware of the places online your child visits, with whom they talk and share pictures, and in what activities they are taking part. These are the same things you would do for your child in real life—their virtual lives are not much different. If your child is seeking privacy for his thoughts, keeping a handwritten journal or diary is best, never one that is online.
  • Silence the beep. Turning off the sound on devices can help us to forget their presence while we’re doing other things. No beep, no distraction.
  • Dock the device. Keep all chargers in one place, maybe in a family room or the kitchen. Set a time of the evening when all devices need to be docked on their chargers, regardless of other activities. Docking devices outside of bedrooms also helps to promote healthy sleep.
  • Balance activities. Create a checklist of chores, homework, outdoor activities, and creative activities to be worked through in a day or a week before a child can use a device. This works well with younger children, who can “earn” time on online or using a device by completing their lists.
  • Control the Wi-Fi. If devices and computers run on your family’s wireless internet connection, set the system to turn off automatically in the evening and to turn back on at an appropriate time in the morning.
Expert recommendations

What type of media is age-appropriate and for how long should your child be online? The American Academy of Pediatrics made these recommendations:
  • Birth-18 months: No screens or digital media use, with the exception of video-chatting with other family members. It best to keep TVs or digital screens turned off entirely when an infant is near them.
  • 2-5 years old: Limit screen time to one hour per day of high-quality, age-appropriate TV, videos, or games (Sesame Street is frequently offered as an example of high-quality children’s programming). Take the time to watch the show with your child and discuss the concepts offered during it.
  • 6 and older: Limit total viewing time to less than two hours a day, and select shows that are age-appropriate in content and action. The TV Parental Guidelines can be helpful in selecting entertainment for your child. Continue to watch shows together with your child, especially teenagers, to help keep communication about your family’s values and expectations open.

When it comes to online use, the same time limits can be used but also:
  • Use parental filters for search engines and devices to limit the content your child can view.
  • Talk with your child about video games or social media apps she uses and why those are attractive.
  • Keep computers for homework in public areas of the home, such as the kitchen or home office.
  • Turn off TVs and devices, or darken their screens, when they’re not in use.
  • Establish no-device zones, such as while riding in the car, and encourage children and adults to visit together.

When to seek help

You’ve done all of this, but your child or teen can’t put the device down, or becomes angry and argumentative when he does. For a few families, professional help might be needed, especially if ADHD co-occurs with another disruptive condition.

If this is the case, talk with your child’s healthcare provider. You may want to ask for a referral to a specialist who understands media overuse and its relationship to ADHD, anxiety, depression, or disruptive disorders. Therapy, including talk therapy and cognitive behavioral therapy, can be helpful when media use has reached a critical point in a family or for an individual person. Family therapy can also help to strengthen relationships when there has been conflict related to ADHD and digital media.

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