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.  

5 thoughts on “7 ways to help with your child’s screen addiction”

  1. My 10yobson has been having issues w screen time and in looking for ways to work w him on healthy use… thnk u for your article, I plan in reading it w him and setting up a plan? will

  2. thank you. our 15 year old son is really struggling with addiction to iphone/social media/gaming – he is disprectiful, angry and mad at us (his parents) that we took it away from him – for an undisclosed length of time… we can already see our 6 year old anxiety shoot up when told “no more time” on ipad video games … this is a serouis problem and glad society is realizing and helping better our world and lessen anxiety/depression causes

  3. I am struggling with a 12 year old son who has a severe case of screen addiction. He is failing most of his classes at school and has no other screens at home but has to use his chromebook at school daily. He brings it home and we continually catch him on games and YouTube. He has gone so far as to wake up in the middle of the night to get back on it even when we keep it our room. He sneaks in right passed us to get at it. He also has ADHD so when he gets cut off from it he absolutely loses it. We dont know what to do anymore and his current psychotherapist isnt really helping us at all. He is absolutely horrible and I feel like he has a real sickness with this. What should we do?

  4. Lilly~
    I am in the same boat as you and have been for years. It has become clear to me that this is clearly an addiction, especially with the ADHD, and there is little out there to help. I am starting to dive into this with my son to see if we can help others. You are NOT ALONE! My son will even steal phones from friends and loved ones just to have a screen. I will say this: I know that as little screen time as possible is best and we have an agreement with school that the MacBook STAYS at school. I also try to keep him physically active daily for many reasons, but this also helps.

  5. I am a widowed mother of 2. Raising my boys alone, and needing to work full time, I discovered first hand the realities of screen addiction in kids and did my best to combat it by spending every nonworking moment with them, filling our home with books, getting rid of most of the (outdated) electronics their dad had introduced, and teaching them to cook, wash dishes and do their own laundry. I let one raise chickens so he could try to come up with a harder eggshell for an egg toss experiment in his physics class. We were also heavily involved in Boy Scouts, so much of our time was spent on camping and merit badge acquisition. In short, I tried to keep them busy and talking to me. We had a system in their teen years where one person would cook, one would wash up and the other would have the night off. (Yes, I did enjoy my night off!) It was a lot of work, but I enjoyed it a lot. It seemed to be working at the time, but even then I struggled with my younger son who made his own router out of a coffee can and changed the password so he had access to internet while I was cut off. (The answer to that was to lock up all our computers at my place of work for 3 weeks. Then he had a router, but no screens. Ha!Take that, kiddo.) My sons are adults now, and one is on his phone constantly and the other is a gamer. However, they both cook, clean up their kitchens, do laundry, enjoy day hikes, and read, as well. I hope they have balance, but am not sure it really worked entirely. The internet is insidious. In fact, what am I doing here? I must get out and walk the dog!


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