Screen Time

Your Child’s Screen Time Is a Privilege, Not an Entitlement

How much screen time for kids with ADHD is too much? During this pandemic, when children are learning online and interacting with friends virtually, the answer has been murky. To clear up blurred lines, parents must establish clear screen rues and set up routines for easing the transition off screens. Here’s what you can try.

Boy and girl play games on smartphones outdoor. Kids digital gadget screen addiction. Children friends playing online sitting on grass in park. Contemporary problem of loneliness together.
Boy and girl play games on smartphones outdoor. Kids digital gadget screen addiction. Children friends playing online sitting on grass in park. Contemporary problem of loneliness together.

Q: “My child spends all his time on screens, and he puts up a fight every time we ask him to get off. How are we supposed to regulate screen time during the pandemic and virtual learning? How much screen time for kids with ADHD is too much?”

A: Screen time is a privilege, not an entitlement. Children are entitled to things like food, clothing, shelter, education, and love. However, many children have gotten it into their heads that they are also entitled to screen time, especially during the pandemic when they are learning and playing on the same device. Some children might even be suffering from headaches, disrupted sleep, and vision fatigue from screen overuse.

To create a healthy relationship with screens and reduce your arguments, your family will benefit from creating a collaborative plan that details when, where, and how screen time will occur. Start by having a conversation with your child about how much screen time is reasonable.

If your ideal is two hours and your child wants four, consider compromising with three hours so that your child feels listened to. Determine the baseline amount of screen time they will be given every day and at what time that screen use will occur. Baseline screen time doesn’t get taken away unless your child is misusing the time by using forbidden apps, engaging in online bullying, or otherwise breaking house rules about digital safety. Maintaining clear, consistent expectations and simple routines will help avoid constant arguments about screen time.

[Free Download: How to Regulate Your Teen’s Devices]

If you’ve agreed on three hours a day of screen time, for example, the baseline might be one hour. The other two hours are the “carrots” with which you negotiate. Choose when the baseline time occurs and when the “carrots” will happen. Designate specific tasks that your child must complete in certain time frames in order to earn the bonus “carrots” of screen time. “Have to” items must precede “want to” activities.

Completing chores and homework, getting out of bed at an appropriate time – these are “have to” tasks that can be linked to bonus screen time — the “want to” activity. For example, if completing homework earns 30 minutes of bonus screen time and completing chores earns another 30-minute chunk, then  your son or daughter may choose to add that extra hour to the baseline hour and have two hours of gaming, YouTube, Snapchat, or anything else. They’ve done their work and now they can play.

Children don’t have a problem getting on screens; they have enormous difficulties getting off them. Screen time is a high-dopamine activity that provides excitement and rewards, and usually the task your child is getting off to do is rarely as interesting or stimulating. That’s why bonus screen time can be leveraged as incentive to get off of screens when asked: let the additional screen time be the reward for sticking to the pre-arranged routine without argument. Remember, when setting up the screen schedule, try to give access to devices at moments that serve you, such as when you have a meeting or work call.

Keep in mind that a child with ADHD is probably going to need more than a five-minute warning to get off their screen, especially if they are playing video games. A timer could work, but the rule of three might be more effective for a distractible child: 1) make eye contact, 2) state your request, and 3) ask your child to repeat it back to you.

[Free Guide to Managing and Safeguarding Your Child’s Screen Time]

Lastly, be mindful of your own screen use. Children believe that their work and lives are just as important as your work and life. If you are on your phone when they are not allowed to be, there will be push back. Consider having some designated family screen-free time each week — maybe during dinners or Sunday afternoons.

The content for this Q&A came from the ADHD Real-Time Support Group session hosted by Dr. Saline titled “ADHD and Screens.”

How Much Screen Time For Kids: Next Steps

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