Dear Teen Parenting Coach

Q: How Can I Help My Teen Better Manage Screen Time?

Learning to manage down time, including time spent playing video games, can be painful for a teenager with ADHD. While micromanagement produces short-term benefits, in the long run it’s harmful. Learn ways to talk to you teenager, so that he may begin to regulate his own behavior independently.

Q: My 17-year-old son with attention deficit disorder (ADHD or ADD), now driving, has a difficult time managing screen time and down time. He will sneak devices or turn off wi-fi so his device won’t lock. He has a harder time with friendships and his down time is spent in front of the screen playing video games as much as possible. Because he stays up late, he can’t wake up in the morning. He is such a good kid – quiet, caring, and respectful most of time. He works out twice a week and plays competitive volleyball 3 times a week. We keep him busy but this year is an easy school year with a light homework load. What can I do to help him? He is in grade 11. Soon he’ll be off to college and I can’t keep micromanaging him, since this is not helping him in the long run.


Dear Thankful,

It’s easy for parents to get lost in worries and lose sight of the big picture. Let’s take a step back. When evaluating a teen, I make a mental checklist of how he is doing at home, in school, socially, and with extra-curricular interests. Your son does well in school (it’s not his fault the homework load is light), gets a bonus for working out twice a week, and is caring and considerate at home. Wow, you do have a lot to be thankful for. Nonetheless, lacking friends is no small concern. It is always distressing to see a child struggle socially.

Your son’s reliance on video games might have something to do with this problem. Without friends to see, video games fill a vacuum and may also distract him from loneliness. I am sure he would prefer to be out with friends rather than at home alone in front of a screen (at least some of the time). However, he might not always been alone. Many boys I work with spend hours online entrenched with their friends in some battle or spy mission, each in the comfort of his own home. While this form of interaction may be foreign to anyone born before 1990, and is not a full social life, it is social. For the socially awkward teen, online gaming may be less threatening than connecting in person. Further, many of these online gamers do eventually crawl out of their basement and actually hang out in real life. I hope this is true for your son.

However, your son still has a problem powering off. Almost every family with a teenager and an Xbox struggles to set limits for managing screen time. It takes tremendous vigilance to track down every device and outsmart a teen’s work-arounds when you shut down the Internet. Here, too, let’s take a broader perspective because you are correct: While micromanagement produces short-term benefits, it’s harmful in the long run. Research has shown that teens are as accurate as adults in identifying risk, but they give it less consideration when making decisions. Your son knows he risks getting in trouble or sleeping through his alarm, but he figures the benefit of getting to the next level far outweighs the cost. These games are extremely fun to play… and play….The challenge is even greater for teens with ADHD, because they have difficulty with time management and impulse control. Since these games are not going anywhere, the goal is to help your son (eventually) be able to regulate his behavior.

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One family I know, whose high school junior had an obsessive relationship to video games, shut down the Internet at home to manage his time. As he approached senior year, however, the boy argued that he needed to learn to play responsibly and manage screen time before going off to college. The parents agreed and for a while he was able to manage. This time, though, when hitting the off button became too challenging, he asked for his parent’s help. It took a greater level of maturity to admit he had a problem and seek guidance.

I would suggest ending this cat-and-mouse game by sitting down with your son. Ask if he thinks he can manage his own game play. Likely, he will say yes, interpreting your question as a free pass. However, take the conversation a step further. Ask him the pros and cons of video games. The pros are obvious, but the con is how easily they gobble up time needed for other priorities, like sleep and homework.

After establishing reasonable expectations give your son time to meet them. Make sure to hold him accountable for his choices (don’t rescue him when he sleeps through his alarm). If the plan does not work, re-visit it with your son, but keep the focus on his ability to regulate himself — not on why he should not play video games. This time, when you ask if he can control himself, you might get a different answer.

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The opinions and suggestions presented above are intended for your general knowledge only and are not a substitute for professional medical advice or treatment for specific medical conditions. You should not use this information to diagnose or treat a health problem or disease without consulting with a qualified healthcare provider. Please consult your healthcare provider with any questions or concerns you may have regarding your own or your child’s condition.