Dear Teen Parenting Coach

“Q: My Teen’s Screen Time is Bananas. How Can We Cut Back, Realistically?”

Too much screen time is a common complaint among parents of teens with ADHD — even more so in quarantine. With distance learning, homework, friendships, entertainment, and even shopping taking place on a screen, it can feel impossible to avoid them. But not every second of our lives needs to take place online. Here’s how to set proper limits.

Q: “Like many teens, my 15-year-old son loves his electronics. With online learning, however, he’s glued to the screen for hours or end, and the line between schoolwork and fun is blurred. He goes on YouTube during his classes, for example, and loses track of time. Homework goes by the wayside, and then it’s time to play catch up. It’s a vicious cycle where he’s getting more screen time than I’m comfortable with. What can I do?”

A: It’s true – it is much harder to regulate screen time now, when just about everything seems to be taking place on a screen. But that doesn’t mean that we can’t take measures to work in screen breaks and to use screen time more efficiently.

1. Instill a “family work time.”

If your son is spending hours on the computer unsupervised or alone, try arranging “family work time,” where he and others in the household can work and study in one area (if space permits). If he sees others working, he may not be inclined to go on YouTube, on his phone, or otherwise give in to distractions. If you’re working from home, being in the same area as he is can give you the opportunity to passively check in on him. If he knows you’re around, this may keep him on course.

2. Set deliberate screen breaks.

Just because “everything” is online doesn’t mean every second of his life should be before a screen. Work with your son to set up screen breaks that work for both of you. As the parent, you can set the rules – after classes are done, he must spend at least 30 minutes on an activity that doesn’t involve a screen, for example. And that doesn’t count sitting on the couch and doing nothing. Teen brains and bodies need movement and exercise. Even taking a walk around the block or throwing a ball with dog will offer some screen recovery time.

When the time for homework comes, encourage him to break down the work into half-hour chunks (or whatever unit works for his attention before he’s distracted or bored), and then take five minutes to rest his eyes, stretch, or grab a snack. Stack a few of these work periods together based on his capacity to focus and then offer a longer break when he’s done.

[My Kids Are on Screens All Day – Is That Okay?]

To decrease overall daily screen time, you can also incentivize him. If he gets to spend some amount of time after homework playing video games, challenge him to finish his homework faster – without cutting corners or looking at his phone or other tabs – so he can get to his games sooner. (The point, however, isn’t to expand the amount of gaming time.)

3. Use parental controls

If you must, consider configuring your home network settings and his phone settings to block him from visiting certain websites (or apps) while he’s supposed to be in classes, doing homework or going to bed.

4. Speak to the school.

The truth is that your son’s school has a lot to do with why he’s struggling to focus on his studies. In fact, I’d say it’s the school’s responsibility to keep all students engaged, and it’s the teacher’s responsibility to make sure that he is participating. What’s likely happening is that he’s paying attention in his virtual classes for about 15 minutes before he gets bored and wanders off to another tab. Communicate with the school about your son’s difficulties and see what advice or changes they can offer. Ask if the teacher is using the chat function, break-out rooms or other interactive tools to engage alternative learners.

Too Much Screen Time: Next Steps

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