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