More than half of teens ages 12-17 report trying to take steps to limit their personal screen time and 57% claim their parents have tried to limit their technology use in one way or another. Limiting screen time can be particularly challenging for teens with ADHD due to difficulties with self-monitoring and inattention. While they may struggle with paying attention in class, screens provide a reliable source of stimulation that can keep them occupied for hours on end. However, this means they struggle with knowing when to take a break and being able to wind down at night.
Screen time is impossible for teenagers to avoid, but teens with ADHD have a harder time using it in moderation due to:
Self Regulation: Teens with ADHD often struggle with recognizing managing overwhelming feelings. They are easily anxious, frustrated, and bored, which are all triggers for executive functioning issues. However, it can be hard to notice the link between them or to honor these feelings as a sign they should take care of themselves. Instead, these negative emotions often trigger insatiability for new experiences and high levels of stimulation. They are more likely to turn to risky behaviors, like substance abuse, to meet this need. As a result, they are particularly vulnerable to the exciting colors, sounds, and images appearing in quick succession on the screen. Video games, internet videos, and social networking sites provide immediate rewards that strongly encourage continued use.
Impulse Control: Difficulties with emotional regulation and insatiability can lead to problems with self-monitoring and increased impulsivity. In terms of technology, they have a hard time recognizing when they have spent too much time on a game and when it is in their best interest to put the game down or go to sleep. They also may be more likely to view inappropriate videos, sext, or make poor decisions regarding internet use based on the novelty and accessibility of these experiences. Impulse control may contribute to difficulties respecting boundaries of limited screen time, like being secretive about phone use, borrowing other people’s devices, or going to desperate lengths to retrieve their electronics when taken away.
Sleep Difficulties: As teens with ADHD extend their screen time, spending time on personal devices before bed to “help them fall asleep” is usually ineffective and can interfere with their sleep quality. The compulsive need to check notifications or refresh one’s feed can keep one’s mind spinning into the night and makes it more difficult to fall asleep. Some studies even suggest that small amounts of artificial light from screens can cause a delay in one’s sleep cycle. Most teens claim they check their phone as soon as they wake up, even if this is in the middle of the night.
Even when they set a “digital curfew” for themselves, ADHD symptoms and medication commonly interfere with sleep. Teens who experience sleep deprivation experience higher levels of daytime sleepiness and inattention. A common solution might be leaving their phone outside of their bedroom, but this is becoming more difficult as we’ve begun to rely on our phones as alarm clocks, for soothing sleep music, and, sometimes, even to monitor our sleep quality using apps!
Technology Abuse and Teens
When it comes to teens and technology, the two most common things parents are concerned about are: the amount of time their teen spends on screens and their teen’s resistance to cutting back on that screen time. Convincing a teenager to put away their phone and come to dinner or engage with the family can seem like an uphill battle.
Teens sometimes use the word “addiction” to describe their own behavior, too. In a 2016 survey by Common Sense Media, half of teenagers said they “feel” they’re addicted to their mobile device. Three-quarters of them said they felt compelled to immediately respond to texts, social media posts and other notifications. While technology use does not actually change the brain’s chemistry the way that substance abuse or alcohol abuse does, devices are stimulating the same reward centers of the brain.
Apps and games are designed to keep us engaged as much as possible, and it can be hard for teens to exercise self-control when their impulse is to keep scrolling. There is also evidence that intense social media use can correlate with an increase in anxiety and depression. Social media often encourages unhealthy comparison and a fear of missing out. That fear of being left out can lead to more technology use as they attempt to stay engaged at the level of their peers.
Teens with ADHD may be using technology through social media or gaming because they are struggling with other aspects of their life. If school is challenging and they feel like they are constantly failing, achieving the next level in their favorite game may give them a boost of self-esteem that they are not getting elsewhere. It’s important to understand the underlying reasons behind your teen’s technology use, and once those are addressed, you can begin to set some parameters around their screen time.
Ways to Limit Screen Time
If your teen is using their devices in an unhealthy way, there are some things to think about to help them limit their screen time:
- Set consistent time frames for technology use. Choose a time of day where screen time may interfere less with other responsibilities, like getting ready for school or doing their homework. While rewarding them with extra screen time may seem reasonable, it is difficult for them to readjust to a shorter period of time. They may be more likely to protest, “but I was fine when I played this game longer yesterday.”
- Encourage them to self-monitor the time they spend online. While some parents turn to parental controls to restrict apps or deactivate service after a certain time of day, they are more likely to respect limits if they feel they have a voice in determining them. Many smartphones offer a breakdown of screen time that can help them visualize their dependence on technology. Setting a timer on their phone can help them keep track of time in the moment.
- Discourage multi-tasking. Teens with ADHD often struggle with doing one thing at a time and may claim they are better at dividing their attention across multiple activities. Many parents recommend that their teen is separated from their phone while doing homework. Other challenges they face may be scrolling on their phone while watching TV and pulling their phone out during meals and other social interactions that interfere with their ability to stay present.
- Encourage them to unplug. Around 56% of teens describe being anxious without their phones. For them, it represents connection, not just entertainment. However, the more time they spend online, the more they struggle with connecting to others offline. While they often associate the absence of their phone with punishment, spending more time outside engaged in recreation activities discourages teens from feeling like they need to turn to their phones to get their needs met.
Re-engaging with the Real World
If your teen is struggling to disengage with their devices and technology time, wilderness therapy may be the right tool to help them re-engage with the real world. By design, wilderness therapy removes teens from the distractions of their everyday lives. They no longer have access to their phone, computers, or tablets. Instead, they are encouraged to connect to nature and the people around them. Though much of our day-to-day lives are removed from nature, humans crave a connection with nature. For many in this generation, quality time outdoors has been replaced by technology time indoors, but there are numerous therapeutic and healing qualities afforded by a natural setting, which is why wilderness therapy programs are so effective.
Being in nature presents a sense of connectedness, purpose, and belonging. In wilderness therapy programs, students spend time reflecting on past choices, exploring future possibilities and discovering the lessons only nature can teach.
While the wilderness provides many unexpected opportunities for learning and growth, the natural consequences of negative and positive behavior are very predictable. Rather than trying to reward or punish individuals for their behaviors, nature teaches powerful and life-changing lessons absent any judgment.
Over time students in wilderness therapy programs begin to understand these consequences and take ownership of their actions, leading to greater autonomy and long-term success.
Trails Carolina Can Help
Trails Carolina is a wilderness therapy program that helps teens ages 10-17 who are struggling with depression, anxiety, ADHD, low self-esteem, and defiance. This program uses adventure-based therapy to help students gain a new sense of self-awareness, confidence, and independence. The skills they learn throughout the wilderness program offer long-term benefits in successfully self-navigating the real world. By removing teens from their fast-paced environment into a safe, nurturing, and peaceful environment, they are able to focus on improving and reflecting upon their behavior while participating in a variety of engaging activities. Trails Carolina gives students the tools they need to lead happy and healthy lives.
Contact us at 800-975-7303 for more information about how we help teens with ADHD. We can help your family today!
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Trails saved my daughter’s life. Amanda is an amazing human and a brilliant therapist. I am so grateful to her, Science Steve, and the other wonderful people who could reach my daughter at a time when I could not.
Margot Lowman August 2022
Great life changing experience for our son. After becoming addicted to gaming during covid he was very depressed. At Trails he experienced the wilderness, Science Steve, learning survival skills and top notch therapy and support etc… I highly recommend! This gave our son and our family a renewed family bond full of love and excitement about his bright future.
Winnifred Wilson July 2022
Outstanding clinical work and superb staff! There’s a great culture at this company and it shows with how they engage with families/clients.
Kristin Brace June 2022