ADHD and Screen Sanity: Why a digital break is good for everybody right now

For many students, families and educators this fall, school as we’ve known has changed. Hybrid or remote learning means spending up to seven hours daily online for classes and then more time for homework. Many kids like to relax and connect with their friends via gaming, social media apps or FactTime. Can overusing technology be a problem for the mental health of kids with ADHD and lead to emotional and/or behavioral difficulties?

When kids with or without ADHD spend too much time on screens, they often become more irritable, lose skills for entertaining themselves and develop fewer critical relationship skills (reading facial cues and body language even with masks on). Risks for obesity increase as the lack of physical exercise and fitness goes down. Exercise produces important endorphins and hormones that improve emotional as well as physical well-being.

Kids with ADHD, (many of whom are already prone to anxiety or dealing with anxiety disorders as 34% have a diagnosis of an anxiety disorder), also become more anxious–worried about FOMO–what they are missing online or how to engage with peers virtually. Many feel pressured to upgrade to new and better equipment. Isolation from less in-person peer contact intensifies the possibilities of depression and social anxiety. They aren’t able to practice much needed skills in reading facial cues or body signals, having casual conversations or nurturing friendships. 

A daily if not weekly digital break is an effective tool for improving mental health and giving technologically overtaxed eyes and brains time to recoup.  By taking a break from being online, children and teens with ADHD can focus on other areas of their lives by nurturing interests, activities and interpersonal relationships. They’ll connect to and develop other parts of themselves which improves self-esteem and fosters positive moods. Whether it’s cooking, shooting hoops, listening to music or walking the dog, their brains and their eyes need time to recover from processing visual information. 

Creating a digital break doesn’t have to incite meltdowns and explosive family arguments. If you make it something everybody does, then it’s more likely to go over better. What kids, especially those with ADHD, can’t stand is when parents tell them to get off their devices while staying on their own phones or iPads. Of course, you may need to make a plan with extended family or work for handling emergencies. Clarify this exception right from the start.

Set aside some time each day or maybe once per week without technology. Meals are a good place to start and then, if you can, expand this to a few hours or even a day a week. Instead of “doing nothing” during this time or only dreaded chores, plan a fun family activity that may include raking leaves followed by ice cream. Or riding a bike or taking a walk to a favorite taqueria. Even thirty minutes daily can offer much-needed relief and give you a chance to interact as a family. If you’re lost about ways to start a conversation, try asking about “a happy and a crappy” of the day or week. One of my clients shared this with me and I laughed aloud. It sounded more fun than my simple “a high and a low”.

By taking these breaks from various types of digital life, you can give your family and yourself some space to do something else without FOMO. Everything–social media, gaming, surfing the net–will still be there when you return. While this may be challenging at first, the long-term pay-offs are worth it. Stick with it and negotiate the terms of how and what screen-free time looks like. Expect pushback and do it anyway. You’ve got this!