Are screens friends or enemies of children with ADHD?

Family psychologist Maria Guerrero takes a look at the effects of technology on hyperactivity, and offers expert tips to help avoid potential harm.

Over the past decade in my practice, I have seen the increase in two trends. One is a boom in the diagnosis of Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) in children. The other is the increase by children in the consumption of technology through smartphones, iPads, and so on, at younger and younger ages – from minutes a day in 2011 to 48 minutes a day in 2017. Given this relatively new reality, I frequently have parents question me about it, asking what effects screens might have on children, especially those with an ADHD diagnosis. Specifically, they want to know why screens fascinate children with ADHD so much. And, are screens the cause or effect of hyperactivity? Are screens the friend or the enemy?

Before diving into the answers, let’s take a quick look at why attention is so important in the first place. Attention is a capacity that allows us to peek into the world around us. We develop this capacity as we grow. Following birth, we only pay attention to sensations such as hunger or sleep. Part of growing is developing the capacity to attend to different stimuli that move, and little by little we gain control over our attention until we are able to concentrate on something even if there are distractions around, such as paying attention to a teacher while our fellow classmates are fooling around. Mastering attention and being able to ignore distracting stimuli is a skill that will allow the child to concentrate, learn, and achieve their goals.

The problem children with ADHD have lies primarily in sustained and direct attention. That is to say, they have greater difficulty than the general population in staying attentive in what implies a mental effort. Many hyperactive children do not stop still for a second, but when they stand in front of a screen things change. Suddenly they can remain quiet, almost without blinking. This might sound true of many kids, but it is even more pronounced in children with ADHD.

Why is this? And why does it look, ironically, so much like concentration? When children with ADHD are on a mobile, tablet, or computer, it does not necessarily require their sustained attention. Video games, for example, give them quick reinforcements with points or prizes, so they can spend hours in front of these screens. Many TV programs are the same, designed to entertain us in short bursts. 

So they are entertained, why is this a problem? A study published by “Pediatrics” confirms that children who spend more time in front of screens have a higher risk of presenting attention problems later. Indeed, we have enough studies that indicate that children who are in regular contact with mobile screens, tablets, or computers are more irritable and have a worse attention span, memory, and concentration than those who do not use them.

Do children with ADHD have a higher risk of screen addiction?

Children with ADHD have problems with sustained attention but when they are playing with mobiles, tablets, etc., their attention to the device increases, as they continuously receive an immediate response to their play. That is why children with ADHD may be more likely to make excessive and inappropriate use of technology, causing them to develop anxiety problems, sleep disturbance, obesity, aggressiveness, and many more difficulties. 

How can you avoid excessive use or screen addiction in children with ADHD?

  • Promote structure: Limits are important and healthy for any child but children with ADHD need them even more. Set strict time limits, block out bedtime hours (and the hour before bedtime), and monitor the type of content they are accessing. Parental control tools are your best friend in this case as they help you set rules and stick to them consistently.
  • Avoid using a mobile device to distract or reassure the child: I know, it’s just so easy to entertain a child in the pediatrician’s waiting room, or while trying to have coffee with a friend. Or to reward a child for finishing a meal or to distract them while putting on their pajamas. It seems like technology is a friend in these difficult moments, but it is not. These strategies don’t allow the brain to learn to strain, concentrate, or wait patiently. You are giving the brain permission to distract itself.
  • Encourage exercise: It’s probably no surprise that many professional athletes have ADHD. Physical activity helps children learn to focus through paying attention to their body movements. I believe there is probably no better way to keep kids away from screens and help a hyperactive child channel their energy and do something great for their body and their brain.
  • Spend more time with your child: A third increasing trend I didn’t mention at the beginning, but which psychologists see as contributing to children’s inability to develop self-control or cope with frustration, is the reduction in the amount of quality time parents spend with their kids. This is often due to difficult work schedules, but I argue it is also due to parents’ personal addiction to screens. Please remember to put the phone away when you get home, or at least during mealtimes. Turn it off. Hide it. Take time to focus and concentrate on just your child every day. Make it a habit to hug, wrestle, and read. Give them 100%. They, and their brain, will learn from you.
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