Screen Time Management & ADHD: Answering the Four Important Questions

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Screen time and ADHD for some families, depending on the family dynamic, might be a big deal. For other families, it might play a lesser but still noticeable role. No matter who you are, though, screen time and ADHD most likely plays some kind of role in your daily life.

In our current culture, you can hardly avoid screens even if you wanted to. In fact, a study conducted in 2016 found that on average American adults spent more than 10 hours each day interacting with screens. That number had even increased significantly from just one year prior. No matter how much you might want to get away from screens, electronics make up a large part of our interactions and leisure time.

Not only has the prevalence of screen time increased, but so has the diagnosis of ADHD in recent years. Research has found that between 2003 and 2011, the diagnosis of ADHD in American schoolchildren rose by a dramatic 43 percent. The numbers have ballooned significantly in a surprisingly short number of years.

The increase in both screen time and ADHD diagnosis has led many to wonder about their connection. In this article, we really look at the connection between screen time and ADHD. Does one lead or contribute to the other? Does more screen time make ADHD symptoms worse? What can or should parents do about their ADHD children spending a lot of time with screens?

In this post, we want to address these questions and more and present some paths forward for parents wondering about this issue for their kids.

Screen Time and ADHD: Does one lead to the other?

Let’s start off with the question that’s on everyone’s mind: does increased screen time cause ADHD? After all, ADHD symptoms include trouble paying full attention, hyperactivity, and being easily distracted. For many parents, the correlation between these symptoms and kid’s TV shows and video games with explosive graphics and constant changing noises is easy to make. In the end, though, does the medium of games and TV shows make kids more prone to distraction and hyperactivity?

Correlation does not mean causation

First off, we all need to understand and recognize that correlation does not prove causation. Simply put, just because children use more electronics now than they have before and the rate of ADHD diagnosis has gone up doesn’t mean that one has caused the other. At the same time, though, this doesn’t rule out the possibility of a connection.

ADHD diagnosis is complicated

Secondly, we need to understand that ADHD diagnosis isn’t so cut and dry that you can narrow down its cause to one or even a handful of things. Scientists have only really started to study ADHD and its causes within the last half century. That is a very short time considering the scope of modern medicine. While we now know many things about ADHD, we still don’t have the complete picture.

Still, scientists do think they have a good idea about some of the factors that may cause ADHD. Interestingly enough, of the potential causes listed by the Mayo Clinic, screen time and electronics don’t make the cut. Rather, genetics, environment, and childhood development appear on the list. Screen time might play into environment, but its effect isn’t deemed so important to warrant its own category.

Little evidence to indicate screen time causes ADHD

What all this comes down to is this: screen time and electronic use most likely has little to do with causing ADHD. Most research actually points to genetics as the primary cause of ADHD in children. As we have discussed many times before, people with ADHD have brains that are simply wired differently. On the surface, this different wiring is neither positive nor negative, it’s just how ADHD minds function. Screen time use does not rewire someone’s brain.

Still, studies have shown that TV watching adds to increased general attention problems in children. This is important to note. While ADHD at its base involves a different wiring of the brain, how the ADHD symptoms manifest tend to result from environmental and other factors. This means that while ADHD exists as a different brain setup, it can appear worse or not as worse depending on different environmental factors.

Screen Time and ADHD: Does more screen time make ADHD symptoms worse?

While the evidence might not exist to definitively say that screen time causes ADHD, there still seems to be a connection between screen time and ADHD. Could the connection be that screen time makes ADHD symptoms worse?

As we just mentioned, studies have shown that TV watching increases attention problems in children. In general then, we do know that with or without ADHD, screen time can create more attention issues. As the name suggests, people with ADHD have issues focusing and staying on task.

While video games and other screen time activities might provide some benefits, science shows us that too much screen time primarily impacts our ability to focus. Additionally, studies have found that kids that have an average of more than 2 hours of screen time a day have a tendency towards more emotional outbursts and other psychological difficulties. This study doesn’t just apply to ADHD kids but kids in general. This just means that the results could be even worse for kids with ADHD.

Overall, the science does seem to indicate that ADHD symptoms can get worse with more screen time use. As a result, parents just need to be aware of the potential side effects for managing ADHD symptoms.

Screen Time and ADHD: What are the dangers of too much screen time?

Regardless of a connection between screen time and ADHD, too much screen time surely can’t be good. After all, humans have existed for a lot longer than electronic screens. Simply put, our bodies weren’t made for watching screens all day every day.

No matter what we do, our bodies and brains develop and adapt to the stimuli in our environments. What we eat, how we move and for how long, what we read and think about all influence our development over time.

The same must be true for screen time use. Shouldn’t it? If it is, there must be some dangers involved. Like with taking prescription medication, there must exist some negative side effects.

While we might find temporarily enjoyment in retreating to electronic screens, our bodies might suffer as a result. Studies have found a connection between excessive screen time and childhood obesity and even diabetes. Additionally, screen time has been implicated in disrupting sleep habits particularly in children, causing problems academically, and causing pain in fingers and wrists.

Screen Time and ADHD: As a parent, what should I do about my child’s screen time?

If you are a parent reading this, you probably searched out this article out of a concern. Your child with ADHD spends a lot of time on video games, computers, and other electronic devices. You know they may enjoy these things, but you have concerns of the effect it might have on them.

You should have concern. Being concerned is a sign of good parenting. Ultimately, you just want the best for your child and to help them succeed. You just don’t want your concern to make you paranoid or overly worrisome.

As we just discussed, screen time doesn’t cause ADHD. Still, you should be aware of some additional things about electronics. Let’s explore those issues together now.

Electronic use isn’t always bad

First, we should acknowledge that electronics in and of themselves aren’t necessarily negative. You shouldn’t think of screen time use like cigarettes. Cigarettes have many known and terrible health side effects and really should not be used by anyone.

Electronics aren’t cigarettes. Rather you should think of screen time use more like a vacation or a special dessert. Screen time can provide benefits, but for the best return, it should be used sparingly. After all, you can’t live your whole life on vacation or eat desserts all the time. If you did, other parts of your life and health would eventually start to suffer.

Studies have actually shown a positive connection between video games and ADHD in limited use. Again, playing video games all the time can end up being detrimental. In small doses, though, playing video games can possibly help improve memory and some executive functioning in the brain.

In addition to video games, many television shows such as Sesame Street and movies such as Planet Earth provide wonderful learning opportunities.

Ultimately, electronics in themselves are not bad, rather it’s how we use electronics that presents issues. Using too many electronics or electronics that don’t provide benefits can have a negative effect over time.

Moderation is key

Second, while we acknowledge that video games can provide some benefits, as with most things in life, they need to be used in moderation. As we just mentioned, you can’t spend your entire life on vacation. In the same vein, you shouldn’t spend all your waking hours playing video games.

As we’ve covered already, playing too much video games can have side effects. Our bodies weren’t designed to sit for hours every day looking at screens. Rather, our bodies were designed to be active and moving, and we ultimately need to incorporate a variety of activities in our daily lives.

To put moderation into action, you need to make your screen time limits clear. How much screen time should be ok depends on a number of factors. Part of establishing limits, though, involves judging the quality of the screen time. If your kids watch an educational show on TV, this provides more benefit than playing a cell phone game with no objectives.

Generally, the younger the children the less screen time overall they should have. The experts fall on either side of the line for kids less than 2, but generally, if they have any screen time it should be very minimal. For kids, 2 to 5, you might consider up to an hour a day of quality screen time. Older kids, you can adjust the limits based on how the screen time impacts them physically and emotionally. Start with one hour a day as a base and build up from there being sure to judge the overall net benefit.

Provide alternatives

Finally, if you take away an activity, you need to replace it with something else. If you don’t provide an alternative to screen time, your child will just want to go back to TV and video games all the more. Without an alternative, you’re bound to have a fight on your hands when you go to take away the screens.

Before you start demanding the screens turn off, make sure you plan out several activities as alternatives. The best options for these activities should include things that you can do with your kids. Ideas could include family game night with playing board games, doing a puzzle together, reading, or playing a sport.

Additionally, you can plan more activities away from the house to get your kids away from spending hours in their rooms. Activities in the community could be going to a baseball or football game, watching a community play, or volunteering at a community event. Activities in the community can additionally provide opportunities to practice and improve social skills.

Unfortunately, TV and video games usually end up acting as a default easy activity. Part of the connection between screen time and ADHD comes from the convenience of electronics. To help limit your kids’ screen time use, you need to plan ahead and take proactive steps. Using creativity, though, you can come up with alternative ideas that provide benefits to the whole family.

Understanding and Addressing the Intersection between Screen Time and ADHD

At first, the connection between screen time and ADHD might appear complicated. As with many things with ADHD, though, with a closer look and more information, things can start to become clearer. We hope this article has helped to clear up some of the fog of confusion around screen time and ADHD.

Ultimately, you shouldn’t see screen time as the big boogey man. Yes, like most things in life, screen time comes with both positives and negatives. Also, like most things in life, you simply need to learn best how to balance those positives and negatives for the best result.

Much of finding the right balance depends on what support structures you have in place. So that your child doesn’t automatically resort to electronics, we recommend making a daily ADHD routine for them. As part of their routine, you can plan out exactly what they need to do at each part of the day. This way, they won’t end up with large gaps of time to sit in front of screens.

Additionally, as much as possible, encourage your kids to get up and get exercise. Even when they protest, both your kids and you will feel better with them getting active. Additionally, getting moving limits the amount of time they’ll sit in front of screens.

Now that you know more about screen time and ADHD, you should try to put some of it into practice. If you tend to be a worrier, stop worrying about the effects of screen time and work to help your kids have more balance in their lives today.