Learning Disabilities and ADHD Articles

Establishing Structure Around Screen Time

Filed under:
Screen Time
Written by:
Andrew Luceno and Jay Johnson
Registered Provisional Psychologists
Nov. 12, 2020

How we got here:

The global pandemic has largely confined caregivers and children to their homes. It has removed the options for extracurricular activities that were once available. And it has created an added stress on adults to provide enough stimulation and entertainment for members of the household.  

With caregivers working from home and their children expected to do the same, achieving the balance between having much needed privacy and meaningful work time and supervising children has been a big challenge for many. When the pandemic hit and lockdown procedures began, children and their families were encouraged to use technology (e.g., video calls) to resist loneliness and stay connected with friends and family. Importantly, allowing children to use technology also provided the space adults needed to get their own work done. While some parents are grateful for the benefits screen time offers their kids (e.g., connecting with friends, reducing tensions and boredom), others are very concerned that screen time has gone haywire in their homes.

In a study by ADDitude magazine on screen time during the pandemic, one parent commented that her daughter would not have any access to friends if it were not for social media. So, she's grateful for electronic devices and sees them as a lifeline during this really complicated time. Another parent commented that when she removes access to devices, her children get bored and begin to argue, which in turn makes her anxious.  All of us can likely relate to these two mothers allowing their children to use technology. On the other hand, we know that some of the people who invented the technology have recognized the need to limit it. Both Steve Jobs and Bill Gates have previously told reporters that they limit screen time for their children in their homes.

What do kids get from screen time?

It's important to consider what many kids, but especially kids with executive functioning difficulties and attention challenges, gain from screen time. We all have a basic need to be social with others, and screen time can help meet that need. Also, kids want to experience feelings of control and have a choice over what they do. Gaming can provide feelings of accomplishment and competence as they master certain skills. This is especially when so much control and choice have been taken away due to the pandemic. 

Social media and even some video games can create a safe environment to socialize with friends, especially for those with social anxiety or other struggles with social communication. Interacting with others in the context of a game (e.g., Fortnite) is like practicing social skills in a low-stakes situation. We should keep in mind that children with ADHD generally lack the stimulation their brains need, and when they're understimulated, they are more likely to act out and show frustration. Because these children have brains that are wired differently, gaming also provides them with the stimulation their brain craves. It can also relieve stress, which is why so many children with attention and learning issues can focus on gaming for long periods of time. 

However, today's social media and games are designed to keep kids connected, tuned in, and playing.  Features like autoplay that count down to the start of the next show or game and app designs use rewards and tokens to keep kids engaged for longer periods of time and get them excited to reach the next level. In some games (e.g., Fortnite), your player dies when you stop playing. In others, you can't save the game unless you've reached certain levels after hours of gameplay. 

Essentially, when parents tell their child, "It's time to get off the device," the child is likely hearing, "You need to disconnect from your friends even though they'll continue playing without you." This FOMO (Fear of Missing Out) is a big reason why it's so hard for kids to disconnect from screen time. Kids with executive functioning difficulties and/or ADHD may resist screen time limits. They may get frustrated, angry, and possibly tantrum when they're told it's time to stop. 

Screentime as a reinforcer, not a right:

With regular access to devices, games, and social media (and having all their friends on there as well), children may believe that their screen time is a right, as opposed to a privilege. Children would benefit from learning that screen time is a privilege that can be earned by fulfilling expectations and responsibilities (e.g., completing their homework, walking the dog, cleaning their bedroom). Like most rewards, they're effective when they're given after the expected behaviour – not before. So, it's no surprise that a child who gets on Fortnite before attempting math problems will not want to transition from a pleasurable task to an unpleasant one. Here's where the Premack Principle comes in. The Premack Principle states that people will engage in a less desirable behaviour (e.g., completing homework) if they know that when they do, they will be able to engage in a more desirable behaviour (e.g., playing video games). So, rather than removing screen time or other preferred activity, use it as a reward for engaging in positive behaviours. 

These days, common desirable activities for children involve the use of toys, video games, television, or other personal electronic devices.  As a parent, these may vary for your child, but it is safe to say that such an activity would be the answer to, "If given an entire day to do something, what would they choose?" Evidently, without structure in place, children would spend entire days engaged in these desirable activities.  However, such activities can be an ideal way to reward your child for engaging in undesirable activities (i.e., those behaviours they would not typically engage in unless you told them to).  

The Plan:

With all the changes and restrictions that have come with the pandemic, screen time is on the rise and it's taken us all by surprise. Getting buy-in from your children is really important when it comes to making plans that involve the family. Parents should discuss responsibilities, expectations, and rewards with their children and gradually implement the plan so that children have time to accept it and adapt.  Here are some considerations:

  • To start, let's agree not to assign blame or cast judgement around how much screen time is being used or how we got to this point. If things escalate during your conversations with your child, you may want to repeat that as a mantra.
  • Many caregivers have different schedules, availability to supervise their kids, and values around what's considered too much screen time. When a behavioural intervention is used, the child must receive the same message consistently from the adults in their life.
  • Try planning a conversation with your child outside of the home (e.g., go for a walk, a drive, skating outdoors, a hike).  You might increase buy-in by discussing the plan collaboratively with your child(ren) away from where conflict and dysregulation typically occur. 
  • Consider that if your child tantrums when asked to put away their devices, that would not be a good time to discuss the plan or try to reason with them. Allow your child to calm down safely before discussing the event.
  • Generate a list of the undesirable activities (household chores, homework, hygiene, etc.) that are expectations; then generate a list of the desirable behaviours (gaming, smartphone use) to be used as rewards. Consider that respectful behaviour toward others at home should be an expectation.
  • Consider what your child is capable of, and make your expectations about the process (e.g., you must work consistently for 30-minutes) rather than the product (e.g., you must finish that assignment). 
  • Generate a list of alternative activities to screen time that your child can do. It's important to get creative here so that those activities don't seem like punishments (e.g., a child with reading difficulties would not want to "read a book" in place of gaming). Coming up with those alternatives may be challenging for children, and they may give up easily, so make a list of options as a team.
  • Children with executive functioning and attention difficulties often struggle with surprises. Those surprises can cause them to lose their calm. Structure and consistency help communicate expectations and support emotional regulation. It may help plan their day(s) around consistent routines such as sleep, nutrition, household tasks, and taking medication (if applicable).
  • Consider your child's biological rhythms when enforcing a schedule. Homework time should be scheduled for when they're most alert.
  • You may find it beneficial to collaborate with other parents to set common time rules around screen time and gaming. If your child's friends have to get off their devices too, your child will be less resistant to doing so.
  • Don't allow tantrums to take away from time devoted to expectations (e.g., homework) or add to screen time. When caregivers reduce their expectations because a child has tantrumed, they teach the child that getting upset is rewarded.

For many caregivers, implementing a plan like this can feel overwhelming and even scary, so be kind to yourself in the process. With many behavioural interventions, you can expect the problem to increase (e.g., kids might push back, more tantrums) for a time before the plan takes hold, and things get better. Again, this is why consistency is so important. Kids will test adults to see if the new plan is real. In the back of your mind, remember that the goal is to provide a structure that helps your child succeed, feel safe, and regulate their emotions in moments of stress.  

For more information about the impact of screen time, what kids are using online, and strategies that parents can use to set limits and create structure, you can visit ADDitude Magazine and Common Sense Media. Check out this article Video Gaming "Among Us" Advice and other articles on Screenagers