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PEP Blog

12|06

Screen Hygiene for Neurodivergent Kids

By Jen Dryer, M.A.

“Max, you have one more minute left of screen time, and then it’s time to put it away,” I calmly told my 10-year-old AuDHD (autistic + ADHD) son, after having given him five- and three-minute reminders prior.

“But I need more time! It’s not fair!” Max yelled in return, banging his fist on the table and hugging his device to his chest. Does this scenario sound familiar? If so, you’re not alone, and you can imagine the struggle that might have ensued. While transitions of any sort can be challenging for many neurodivergent (ND) kids, transitioning off screens is often next-level challenging.

Screen “Hygiene”

Associated with personal cleanliness, “hygiene” signifies healthy habits. Accordingly, screen hygiene indicates healthy habits around screen use. This, as any parent knows, often feels like an uphill battle. Screens and devices, from televisions to smart phones, are ubiquitous. They are central to our ability to connect with others, learn in school and be entertained. And they’re incredibly addictive, for kids and adults alike.

Our Kids’ Brains on Screens

Screens’ addictiveness is linked to our brains’ hardwiring to minimize pain, maximize pleasure and increase efficiency. Screens are pleasure-inducing, activating the neurotransmitter dopamine, the hormone central to our brain’s “reward system.” The Cleveland Clinic notes, “As humans, our brains are hard-wired to seek out behaviors that release dopamine in our reward system.” Like sugary foods, screens (TV, smartphones, tablets, etc.) increase the flow of dopamine in the brain. That dopamine surge feels fantastic, and the brain is wired to want more, more and more of that feeling. Given kids’ underdeveloped prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain where our executive functioning and self-regulation systems live, they are less able to intellectually override the “dopamine hit” that screens provide.

It’s easy to see that our ND kids, many of whom struggle greatly to meet the demands of everyday life in a world not built for the way their brains work, would have a fierce drive to stick with sources that flood them with pleasurable, rewarding feelings. The real world can feel very unpredictable for ND brains, which tend to struggle with sensory input (how things around them look, feel, smell and sound), social interactions (difficulty understanding and intuiting the “hidden rules” of neurotypical social communication) and managing their big feelings. By comparison, interacting with screens feels predictable and safe. The immediacy of the click or tap to achieve a desired or adrenaline-boosting effect makes it much harder to withstand delayed gratification, or work through analog activities whose rewards feel less exciting and less immediate.

Benefits of Screens for ND Kids (Yes! There are benefits!)

While screen use has some clear negatives for ND kids, there are some real benefits that are important to highlight. Screens can provide unique opportunities for social connection for ND kids who often struggle to connect with peers. It’s a place where ND and NT (neurotypical) kids alike find entertainment, often for hours! Games and videos provide shared interests, encouraging topics for meaningful conversations with peers. My AuDHD son has daily conversations with his older brother about a video game they both play, assessing new elements of the game and discussing strategies to get past a level. Their conversations are natural, involve give and take and allow my socially challenged child to effectively share his ideas, ask questions and meaningfully connect with his brother over a shared interest.

Some screen-based games involve team play and communication with others, which can teach teamwork and cooperation skills. We have an old Wii console at home where my son can play “tennis” with or against his brother simultaneously.

Screens can serve as solid sources of learning for kids when vetted and monitored. Use of sites such as BrainPOP, ABCya!, Prodigy and others can be great ways to learn and practice academic skills. Recent research has highlighted that screens can also help kids develop problem-solving skills. For example, strategy-oriented games can help develop critical thinking skills, and coding projects encourage trial-and-error experimentation.

The development of digital skills such as internet research and typing is critical for future participation in the workforce, and for communication and connection in this digital age. My son loves making Excel spreadsheets about contestants’ performances on television shows or levels of video games, and even PowerPoint presentations about the shows or games he likes! The potential for learning digital skills is real.

Screentime can also be an avenue for kids to release stress and find a space that feels “safe.” It is important to note, however, that some screen activities (like social media and intense games) can cause increased feelings of stress for some kids. Not all screen activities are equal in helping a stressed-out child find comfort, but the feeling of giving an overworked ND brain a rest via a screen is real.

Screens can serve as jumping off points to build nonscreen areas of interest. We were able to parlay my son’s interest in playing kiddie cooking games on his device into an interest in cooking and baking “IRL” (in real life), which he would not have necessarily come to otherwise. He and his brother also reenact and build on scenes from video games or shows in pretend-play scenarios that provide excellent social play practice for him.

Building Screen Hygiene Practices at Home

Most of us can relate to the challenge of restricting our own screentime. So, we must start by asking what we are doing and modeling ourselves, and step back to assess our current structures around screentime. Here are some guiding questions:

  • What are your own screen habits?
  • What are you modeling for your children?
  • What are your “house rules” for screens?
  • Do you, and others in your family, have clarity around those rules?
  • Do you like your rules (and your reasons for having them)?
  • If you have a parenting partner, do you agree on screen use structures?

Setting Clear Boundaries and Rules

Having clear boundaries for screen use can help all kids. Whenever possible, collaborate to develop your family’s structures with your child to increase buy-in. It’s helpful to explain (or find a BrainPOP video!) about the downsides of prolonged screen use for kids’ brains (and eyes). All of this takes work and is not easy to set up or monitor, but it is key for establishing healthy screen habits.

Creating and adhering to new structures is challenging, so be prepared. Figure out a plan for monitoring screentime and provide easy access to appealing nonscreen activities. Here are a few ideas to set up clear screen-use structures at home:

  • Schedule a discussion with your child/family about screen limits during a calm moment, providing clear reasons for the why and working together to set up systems of accountability.
  • Figure out in advance how you can be consistent with your screen structures and limits. It’s easy to let things slide and then berate ourselves, so set up your systems for consistency.
  • Build screentime into your child’s daily schedule and have it posted somewhere clearly. This way, your ND child knows when it will start and when it will end. Also build in for times when schedules change: if they know exactly how long they will have on their screen for any period, they will be more apt to feel less desperate when time is up.
  • Understand your child’s limits. If they become “over-dopamined” after 20 minutes and they can’t separate effectively from the screen, then create shorter screen times across the day. Conversely, if the transitioning off and on feels like too much for them, one longer chunk of time per day might suit them better.
  • Set up a screen transition system with them (during a nonscreen moment!). Set a system for transition reminders. Determine together how many minutes beforehand the reminder will occur and how it will be delivered. Verbal reminders may trigger some ND kids, so maybe a quick visual reminder is best (e.g., quietly get their attention and hold up the number of minutes left on your hand).
  • Plan for screen transition practice with lots of repetition and practicing of strategies to transition off. After a few weeks, reassess with your child what’s working, and decide together what to keep and what to tweak.
  • Set clear protocols for times when they want to stay on longer. If they want to stay on their screen longer on one day, you can calmly offer them an exchange (“If you’d like to stay on today for 10 extra minutes, we can just take 10 minutes off your next screen time.”), and then have a visible place to record it, so no one forgets!
  • Practice nonscreen activities. During a “neutral” time (not during or after a heated argument about screen use!) practice doing some appealing nonscreen activities and set up easy access to those activities.

Your primary job is to remain calm, empathetic, and clear in holding the boundary you decided on, until reassessment time come along. Know there will be pushback and possibly big feelings when adapting to new screen routines. Allow your child to struggle a bit. A little boredom is good for kids, even if it may feel uncomfortable for them. Boredom helps develop creativity, imagination, planning skills and problem-solving strategies, and gives them practice relying on themselves for entertainment.

That said, screens are not as evil as they are sometimes portrayed, and there can be real benefits to letting your ND child use them. If you can work to create and clearly share with your child some purposeful structures around screen use, your child can develop healthy habits that will help them as they move toward adulthood and screen-use autonomy.

Recommended screentime limits by age (per American Association of Child and Adolescent Psychology)

  • 0-18 months: Zero, except for video chats with an adult
  • 18-24 months: less than 1 hour, cowatching educational programs with a caregiver
  • 2-5-year-olds: 0-1 hour on weekdays, 0-3 hours on weekends
  • 6-17-year-olds: 0-2 hours daily
  • 18+ year-olds: 2-4 hours, with frequent screen breaks

Other Boundaries to Consider

  • Set a digital curfew. Blue light impedes sleep for human brains. Put screens away at least an hour before bedtime.
  • Cowatch shows or videos with your kids and talk about what you watch.
  • Limit screens to indoor use so they can observe and interact with the outside world.
  • Limit “background” screens. Running the TV for much of the day can pose challenges for kids struggling to separate from screen use.
  • Work toward screen-free bedrooms and meals. Help kids who struggle socially find protected times to practice meaningful interactions with others.
  • Consider creating a screentime contract with an older child (see Common Sense Media for ideas)

This article appears in the December 2023 issue of Washington Parent magazine.

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