Learning Disabilities and ADHD Articles

The Appeal of Screen Use and ADHD

Filed under:
ADHD Technology Screen Time
Written by:
Nicole Jaggard, B.A., MEd., Registered Provisional Psychologist
Jan. 8, 2020

Screens and ADHD. What is the Relationship?

In today’s society, there is a growing prevalence of screen use in our daily lives, and it appears that individuals who have ADHD are particularly drawn to screen use. This leads parents and educators to ask, why?  

ADHD is a common childhood brain-based disorder that impacts functioning in the areas of sustaining attention and controlling impulses. Often times with ADHD, the brain is trying to find stimulation. This results in behaviours that are commonly associated with ADHD, such as fidgeting and appearing restless. These behaviours actually serve a purpose, by providing the brain with stimuli that are not naturally created, such as dopamine. Such stimulation then improves levels of attention, concentration, and focus. This need for stimulation can account for why screens are appealing to children, particularly children with ADHD.

This article will discuss why children are drawn to screen time, how screens impact sleep, and the influence screens have on a child’s social, emotional, and behavioural development. It will end with strategies for creating boundaries around screens.

Attention and Screen Time

It is common for children who have ADHD to have difficulty sustaining their attention when they are required to complete challenging tasks, such as academics and homework. However, they appear to be able to sustain considerable amounts of attention for extended periods of time when engaged in enjoyable activities, such as watching a movie or playing video games. This can be puzzling to parents and teachers and give off the notion that a child is “unmotivated” or “lacks persistence.”

When considering that the brain is seeking stimulation, it is no wonder that the fast-paced visual and auditory excitement provided by screens (i.e., video games and movies) is captivating for individuals with ADHD. This is because the fast-paced nature and immediate gratification provided by video games increase levels of dopamine in the brain. This increase can be similar to the effect of that provided by prescribed ADHD medication. As such, one notion as to why video games are appealing to children and youth with ADHD is because such screen use can be used as a way to self-medicate, which can help explain the increased use for people diagnosed with ADHD.

Screens and Sleep

Research has proven that blue screens, including cell phones, impact sleep quality. This is because the part of the brain that produces melatonin and prepares the brain for sleep (i.e., the pineal gland) perceives screen light to be associated with daylight, which delays melatonin production. This essentially tricks the brain into thinking it’s time to be alert, as opposed to preparing the brain for relaxation and sleep. Research also indicates that children and youth who sleep with electronic devices in their rooms are at a greater risk of having a disrupted sleep pattern. This is because of the immediacy of technology, particularly when receiving text messages and emails (especially emotionally charged messages) while trying to fall asleep and/or when sleeping. Lastly, playing video games before bed can increase the body’s physiological arousal systems, which makes falling asleep more difficult. This is especially the case when playing fast-paced and/or violent video games before bed. Subsequently, all of these factors decrease quality sleep during the night and increase daytime fatigue. In turn, these factors decrease academic performance and also increase levels of irritability. They can reduce the ability to cope with environmental demands, which can already be challenging for children with ADHD.

Creating a consistent sleep routine, also known as sleep hygiene, is important for improving sleep quality. Some strategies for sleep hygiene include: having a consistent routine before bedtime, turning off screens 1 hour before bed, and limiting screen use in the bedroom (such as no TVs, no video game console, etc.).

Screens and Development

When considering screens, like all things, how they are used needs to be considered. While there may be many benefits, there often come risks as well.

Positive aspects associated with screens

Research has indicated that screen use can help improve visual-motor, visual-spatial, and object identification in individuals who play video games. Moreover, playing video games can provide a social network for children who play online games with other individuals. This can increase other prosocial behaviours such as working with other people to achieve a common goal. On a larger level, technology can help people promote social connection, especially when communicating with friends and relatives who might live far away through different devices such as video-conference calling devices. Lastly, the use of cell phones can be used as a safety device by providing children and youth a means to stay in communication with their parents and other individuals if needed.

Concerns associated with screen use

Given that screens stimulate dopamine, video games can become addictive if used in excess, and they can increase behavioural challenges in individuals. They can become aggressive or jittery when they are not playing video games or when screen time is limited. Moreover, screen time can decrease physical activity and can increase additional health-related concerns. As such, when used in excess, screens can limit important opportunities for social, emotional, and behavioural development.

When playing with others online, a child is still not receiving the same social connection and interactions that help develop appropriate social skills, such as face-to-face communication, reading non-verbal cues, and solving conflicts that are not generated behind a screen. Other concerns include:

  • Eye fatigue and strain.
  • Obesity, due to decreased physical activity.
  • Increased depressive symptoms due to difficulties sleeping, particularly for cell phone use before bedtime. This is due to the dependency children and youth can develop on their phones, as well as the anxiety associated with sending and receiving messages.
  • Research indicates that excessive video game use decreases gray matter in the brain, which decreases cognitive functioning in the areas of task shifting, working memory, and self-control. This increases impulsivity and sensation-seeking behaviours.
  • Increased feelings of depression, isolation and loneliness.
  • Decreased empathy which perpetuates and makes youth more vulnerable to be involved in cyberbullying.

As noted above, these risks are often associated with extreme or excessive video game use. Balancing how much screen time is utilized with other activities such as sports, group activities, clubs and hobbies can provide a balance for healthy development.  

How can Parents Help?

According to the film ‘Screenagers,’ there are many ways parents can help build healthy boundaries around screen time. These strategies include:

  • Role-modeling appropriate use in the home setting (i.e., no phones at the dinner table, monitoring how much screen time you are using, etc.)
  • Creating spaces in the home, such as common areas, where screens are used.
  • Positive noticing: this means noticing when your child is focused on homework and not screens.
  • Implementing rules such as no screens in the bedroom.
  • Limiting screen usage, such as no screens 1 hour before bed, etc. to help improve sleep quality.
  • Educating yourself on parental safety controls and educating your children on the dangers of excessive screens and being safe online.
  • Knowing the ratings of the games/videos your children are watching/playing.
  • Using parental websites to help determine if screen activity is age-appropriate such as Kidsinmind.org
  • Playing games and watching videos with your children to determine if their screen use is age-appropriate.
  • Engaging in collaboration with your children to create a screen contract. Screen contracts can be a useful way to help children feel heard, while at the same time creating boundaries for screen use (i.e., cellphones, screen time, and video games, etc.). Examples of a screen contract can be found at the following links:

Take-away Points

  • Screens are particularly appealing to individuals who have ADHD because it provides immediate rewards and gratification.
  • The brain craves dopamine, which is provided by enjoyable activities including the use of screens. This is why individuals can sustain their attention for extended periods of time while playing games, but have difficulty attending in classrooms or when engaged in taxing or challenging tasks.
  • Excessive use can increase behavioural difficulties and decrease opportunities for healthy development such as physical activity and social connections, and thus increase emotional concerns such as anxiety and depression (i.e., isolation).
  • Screens can impact sleep quality. Encourage sleep hygiene and limit screen time before bed.
  • Strategies such as modelling how to appropriately use screens, becoming familiar with parental control settings, educating children around the dangers of too much screen use/ online safety, and becoming active in their screen use can increase open and honest communication and promote healthy screen use.

If you are concerned that your child is being bullied online, please refer to the following resources:

Resources for parents