Managing Screen Time With ADHD

There’s something about screen time that can get away from you.

You watch an episode on Netflix, and it’s so easy to continue into another episode after that. You look something up online, which leads you to click a link, and then another.

Just five more minutes of browsing the internet, then I’ll get to my chores. I’ll play one more game before I start my homework. I wonder what happens in the next episode?

And then, before you know it, hours have gone by. Your work, studying, or household tasks remain untouched, and you aren’t sure how that much time slipped away while you were glued to your computer, TV or phone.

ADHD makes the trap of “just a little more screen time” all the easier to fall into.

People with ADHD have brains that tend to gravitate to immediate rewards. While top-down self-regulation skills might lead neurotypical people to stop and say “Wait a minute, maybe it’s not a good idea to watch another episode when I have a project to finish for tomorrow,” people with ADHD are less likely to override impulses in this way.

Add to that the ADHD tendency to hyperfocus on interesting activities and lose track of time – you can start to see how ADHD symptoms set the stage for screen time snowballing out of control.

No surprise, then, that studies have linked ADHD to all kinds of excessive media consumption, including internet, smartphone, gaming and social media addiction.

So what can people with ADHD do to manage screen time? Here are six ideas.

1. Schedule screen time

Often the best way to manage time is simply to schedule it in advance. If you deliberately schedule a window of time every day for recreational screen time, you eliminate the open-ended nature of unscheduled screen time that can spiral away.

Scheduling in advance when you will watch TV, browse the internet, play games, etc. is easier than trying to limit your screen time in the moment. If you have a preexisting rule to follow, it takes the burden off your real-time executive functions.

2. Only start a new TV show every so often

Starting a TV show is a commitment – at least, if you’re like me and want to see all subsequent episodes in the show as soon as you see the first. It helps to be mindful of the tendency for one episode to lead to more episodes. Try setting a rule for how often you’ll begin watching new TV shows!

I tried the most absolute version of this rule when I wanted to stop watching TV in college: I stopped watching new shows altogether and only let myself finish shows I’d already started. I was able to gradually taper off all my TV usage. You might not want to go to that extreme, but consider setting some kind of limit on how frequently you introduce a new show.

3. Find substitutes for screen time

One way to reduce screen time is to replace it. Picking up a new hobby can give you a more rewarding activity to substitute for screen time.

You can even replace screen time with another type of media. Books are nice!

4. Make screen time useful

The worst part about too much screen media consumption might be the feeling of wasted time. But what if you could make your screen time feel productive?

My favorite way of accomplishing this is using TV shows and movies to learn a language. I have to admit that I feel like I’m really getting away with something when I’m able to binge-watch a TV show and chalk it up to being diligent in my language studies!

5. Talk to a mental health professional

If excessive screen time reaches the point of causing significant problems or distress in your life, consider meeting with a mental health professional. Too much media consumption may seen like a minor issue, but screen media can become addictive, with real consequences.

Psychotherapy is an excellent way to approach problematic screen media usage – not to mention the many other ways ADHD symptoms undermine time management and create stress in everyday life.

6. Don’t judge yourself

If you spend more time than you like in front of screens, keep in mind that doesn’t reflect “laziness.” Struggling with time management, self-regulation, planning, and switching between tasks is a common part of ADHD.

It’s OK if your brain is wired to dial into activities it finds interesting and sometimes gets “stuck” on them. It’s not a reflection of your “character.” Rather, it’s a tendency to be aware of so that you can manage it when it causes problems.

Plus, the point isn’t that all screen time is bad and needs to be puritanically eliminated. A moderate amount of time spent relaxing through screen usage can be a healthy type of self-care. It’s all about finding the level of screen time you’re happy with and looking for ways to achieve that balance.

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