Addiction to Screens: My Take-Away’s from Dr. Ned Hallowell’s Presentation

Last week I had the privilege of introducing Dr. Hallowell as he spoke to a packed auditorium about Stress, Screens, and ADHD.  As always, he inspired and encouraged people to shift their perspective on the realities of having ADHD.  Bottom line: we must move away from the Moral diagnosis that somehow having ADHD is a failure created by lack of discipline on the part of parents or a lack of will power on the part of those who have the diagnosis.  Yes, there are real challenges, however with proper treatment – including education about ADHD, coaching, and medication when tolerated and warranted – there is no reason that a person can’t be very highly successful.

Regarding the use and overuse of screens (phones, tablets, computers, TV) here are his main points:

Dr. Ned Hallowell
Dr. Ned Hallowell

It’s like an addiction – but we can’t treat in the same way.

The attachment to screens can be likened to an addiction.  However, the typical addiction model for treatment does not work since unlike drugs or alcohol, in society today you cannot abstain from screens.  It is more like food where we need to help people develop a healthy relationship with screens and learn moderation and limits.

There are real draws to the electronics – whether you have ADHD or not.  We must start young with children and set firm, hard limits.  There must be times when we say “Turn it off” and really set that as an absolute limit.  Dr. Hallowell says, “It’s high stakes” and we “Must step in” to stop what is going on.  Get to the core of the addiction and treat it as such, perhaps seeking out an addiction specialist.

I recognize that there is a significant difference when you are speaking about a child who is still young enough where you can more easily control their usage and an older child who has more inherent independence and uses their devices for homework as well, thereby making it more difficult to restrict.  Not to mention that at some point teens are often awake long after their parents so controlling the use become even more challenging!

Here are some of my own suggestions:

  1. As always, start with empathy and a genuine recognition of the challenge.  Acknowledge that it truly can be fun and to use these devices.  And that they are a huge part of socializing and connecting with peers.  We must always connect emotionally with our children before we can hope to help them change or try something new.  Let them know that we want to help them develop, as Dr. Hallowell puts it, their “muscle of moderation.”  Will power is an important life skill!
  2. While children are still young, set hard limits and keep to them.  Restrict the hours they have access to devices.
  3. When it comes to cell phone use, be clear on who owns the phone.  The phone is a privilege.  It is a very big responsibility and like everything else, freedom and responsibility go hand in hand.  Having the phone is a “freedom” which is earned only by being responsible.  Part of being responsible is monitoring your time and use of the phone.  Be clear from the beginning that if your child is no longer being responsible, he/she loses the freedom to have a phone, and because it’s your property, you may take it back.
  4. Recognize when you, as the parent, are leaning on these devices to keep your children occupied as an easier solution.  Back before we even had the early hand held games we used to keep bags of coloring books, crayons, cards, small toys, etc. to play with our kids while waiting for meals in restaurants or for car rides.  We played games like connect the dot, I Spy, and hangman.  
  5. As with the tendency to over eat, we have an easier time if we don’t have unlimited access to things we have a hard time resisting.  For older children, become familiar with the new technologies that allow you to restrict usage to the internet and certain websites.  Discuss with your children before you install these restrictions how these might be helpful for setting limits so that “in the moment” when their will power is not as strong they can have that “out of food” reality.  Work to collaborate with them to reach agreement on reasonable limits.  
  6. Get fresh air – go biking, climbing, running, hiking, swimming.  Meditate outdoors!
  7. Remember that your children are always watching you.  Are you putting down your devices to connect with your world?  

I recognize that none of this is easy.  We are still at the infancy of recognizing the challenges and impact of this 24/7 world on our children.  I welcome hearing from each of you with your suggestions and successes in how you, and your children, are learning to manage.  

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