Kids with attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder are often hyper-focused on technology. If you’re a parent of such a child, you know it’s a myth that kids with ADHD can’t focus. Their attention can be directed quite intensely onto a smartphone or tablet or apps displaying something they find fascinating: games, texts, the internet, social media. Mobile devices provide an endless supply of feedback and enticements that keep the pleasure center of the brain very happy, which can make it a real struggle to pull a child away from their phone or yours.
There is a correlation between having ADHD and high levels of smartphone use, and the increase in the rate of children diagnosed with the disorder does make you wonder how mobile technology is impacting attention levels in young children and teens. One study found that children who use smartphones may be at increased risk for ADHD, but researchers say it’s possible these children may spend more time with their devices because they already have symptoms of ADHD, such as inattention and hyper-focus.
Some kids become engrossed with a particular smartphone game or app and later toss it aside, but kids with ADHD are at higher risk for becoming dependent on a device. This is cause for concern, because research has linked smartphone dependence to anxiety, depression, sleep disturbances, and low self-esteem.
Being overinvolved with a smartphone isn’t just about the number of games a child plays or texts they send or their social media posts. Kids with ADHD can become caught in a behavioral loop, mindlessly checking social media or seeking to achieve the next level in a difficult game. Dependence also means the child may become so hyper-focused on their phone, they can’t stop. They may become distressed when the battery dies, the phone is out of sight, or they’re not allowed to sleep with it at night. To evaluate your son or daughter’s dependence on their smartphone or other device, consider the following questions:
- Talk about or look for their phone when they’re not using it?
- Use their phone for no particular reason?
- Argue with you about their smartphone use?
- Interrupt whatever they’re doing when they get an alert on their phone?
- Lose track of how much time they spend using their phone?
- Feel distressed when their phone is off or out of reach?
- Feel unable to reduce their smartphone use?
What You Can Do
The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that you start young, by discouraging screen use by children younger than 18 months other than videochatting. For older kids, they encourage you to monitor how much time they spend on their devices and the content they’re viewing, and to keep mobile devices out of their bedroom to ensure healthy sleep habits. Here are more action steps for smartphone use in a child with ADHD.
Model good phone behavior: Make sure to reflect on your own smart phone habits before you create a technology plan with your child or teen. Try designating no-phone spaces in the house (e.g., the kitchen or living room) or at certain times (e.g., mealtimes or bedtimes). These strategies can enhance family time and help everyone feel more in control of their phone use.
Create alternatives: Less phone use won’t feel like a punishment if kids and teens have other options. What activities does your child enjoy that don’t involve screens? How can you steer your son or daughter in that direction when they seem particularly dependent on their phone? A family bike ride or a local softball game could provide a much-needed break from hyper-focus on a phone.
Avoid abstinence: As they progress in school and, eventually, at work, your child will rely increasingly on mobile devices. Abstinence from phone use is not the goal, because it’s not sustainable for the future. Showing them how to use smartphones thoughtfully and monitor their use will only benefit them as they move forward in life.
Ask for help: Never hesitate to ask for help if setting limits and negotiating doesn’t seem to work. A mental health professional who specializes in ADHD can help you tailor your approach to your child’s device dependence and creatively redirect their attention. They can also help you negotiate rules that benefit everyone.
Start by having an open and honest conversation with your child or teen about their smartphone use. What do they like about their phone? What makes them happy that doesn’t require a phone? Finding balance with technology can be difficult, even for adults. So, practice patience with your child, and consider how you can help them, and yourself, develop a thoughtful, healthy relationship with smartphones and other devices.