Resources and discussion for parents, teachers and young people navigating the evolving landscape of the digital world.

Friday, November 11, 2016

Screens and ADD/ADHD

Last night, we were graciously invited by the Sherman Elementary PTSA to moderate a Q&A session after their sponsored screening of the Screenagers documentary for their school community, other Tacoma Public Schools, and the South Sound community at large. What a great night! The number of children in the audience was incredible, and the kids asked some really thoughtful questions about the impact of video games on their time and their bodies, what happens to their brains (and sometimes their tummies) when they sit for too long consuming media, and shared their own experiences and sometimes even asked for a bit of guidance with questions that started with, "Is it okay to...?"

"Screen Time Togetherness" by ExpectGrain
is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0
We got one question in particular that stood out to me, and it came from a child inquiring whether or not there were good or bad differences for kids with ADD/ADHD when it comes to screen time. Such a thoughtful question! Believe it or not, when we first started working to host the film at our own school last spring, we did so with the support and guidance of our local Pierce County chapter of CHADD (Children and Adults with Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder).  At that time, I published this article on the Charles Wright website. I share it here again, as it provides information and helpful links.

The intersection of technology and attention disorders is quite complicated, especially if you have read recent headlines like Is the Internet Giving Us All ADHD? (Washington Post, March 2015) juxtaposed with other offerings claiming Technology Makes ADHD Better, Not Worse(Forbes, June 2015). How are we to make sense of all this? In our current digital age, we use technology to learn, communicate, organize, create, and be entertained. Our growing use of, and dependence on, these devices has teachers, researchers, and doctors asking questions about the impact of all this connectedness not only on our ability to focus and pay attention to tasks, but on our health and well-being in general. Within the last year, the phrase adult onset ADHD has actually become a thing (even though it’s NOT really a thing), as we all struggle to understand why we are so easily drawn to, and distracted by, our smart phones. Think “SQUIRREL!” from the movie “Up.”

Well, to link the distracting nature of technology directly to ADHD is a bit disingenuous. As author Caitlin Dewey points out in her piece for the Post, “The Web certainly may cause ADHD-like symptoms, and it could exacerbate the disorder in children and adults who suffer from it already … but there’s no evidence that Internet use could actually cause an otherwise healthy person to develop the disorder. After all, ADHD is believed to have a range of underlying genetic causes, things you couldn’t just ‘catch’ from a computer screen.” What many are actually alluding to when they discuss such distractibility is not ADHD, but multitasking, which years of brain research now shows to be an impossibility. No matter how good we think we are at multitasking, what we are actually doing is task-switching. Perhaps we don’t notice because we do it so rapidly, but each and every time our brain has to make the switch between tasks, however small, it takes a toll on our productivity. We are drawn to the beep, buzz, alert, or notification that forces the change in focus, and we lose track of where we are because we haven't actually seen a single task through to the end. Hence we can feel like we are doing a lot of things but accomplishing nothing at the same time. Sound familiar?

As for the realities of ADHD and technology, parents are often baffled that their child can’t sit still long enough to read a book or complete a project, but put them in front a videogame and they can play for hours. There are multiple factors at work here. Dr. Dimitri Christakis, professor of pediatrics at the University of Washington and the director of the Center for Child Health, Behavior and Development at Children's Hospital in Seattle, urges us to think about ADHD differently than we currently do, not in terms of who can and cannot pay attention, but as a spectrum of “attentional capacity.” All of us exist somewhere on this continuum, and finding out what works for each of us is critical. The ADHD brain works differently. As Dr. Dale Archer puts it, “The chaotic effect of competing sources of information that can distract and derail others is like manna to an ADHDer, for whom these extreme states actually boost a feel-good response in the brain. It’s why many with ADHD appear so focused and functional in the middle of a maelstrom.” That super-focused videogame player? The stimuli of the game, and the rapid nature of your choices leading to immediate rewards, is exactly what an ADHD brain craves, he says. So in this case, the child’s attentional capacity for the game is greater than it might be for other activities that do not offer similar rewards. Who wouldn’t choose the game in those circumstances?

There is still cause for concern, however, in that too much time/attention devoted to a certain task can be a problem. Discussing the common misconception that people with ADHD simply cannot pay attention, Dr. Ned Hallowell, one of the country’s leading experts on ADHD, puts it this way: “People with ADHD can super-focus at times and pay better attention than anyone. When what they are doing interests them they often go into a state of hyper-focus, such that they lose track of the passage of time or their biological needs and drives. It is when they are not interested that their minds wander. But their minds do not go empty, which is why attention deficit is such a misnomer. In ADHD attention wanders, but it never disappears.”

So how does a family manage their use of technology and screen time, whether ADHD is present in the home or not? For all of us to maximize our attentional capacity, we need to critically look at how we are spending our time and seek the right balance. For the parent who feels like Snapchat and Instagram have “stolen” their child from them, this means some pretty critical thinking needs to occur about how, when, and why your child has access to social media. Add adolescence and hormones to the mix and we really have a lot to learn!

That's where we left off last year with an invitation to join us for the film screening. This fall, we invite you to a few things as well, and hope that you will join us as together we explore and learn more about the impact of technology on our brains and learning.

November 16, 2016 - 6:30-7:30pm. The Pierce County CHADD meetings are held monthly at CWA. Next Wednesday guest speaker Dr. Jill C. Kinney, Ph.D., PLLC will be talking about "ADHD and the Family System- Support for Everyone." Keep up with the group on their Facebook page, too!

January 19, 2017 - 6:30-8:00pm at Charles Wright Academy. This is the date for our annual Raising Kids in a Digital World workshop. Please click the link for more information and to RSVP. The event is FREE, open to all, your t(w)eens are invited to come too, and there will be free childcare for very young children.

In the meantime, here are a few more great articles/books that might help you in your journey.

Thursday, November 10, 2016

AAP Media Use Guidelines Updated!

So I have a lot of catching up to do...

My growing collection
I just discovered an unfinished draft of a post I began writing last spring entitled, "Teens, Social Media, and Books That Make Me Want to Throw ALL THE PHONES into the Ocean." Wow. Seems pretty intense, but it was definitely how I was feeling after reading a few new books that I added to my collection. Tonight, Sam and I are hosting a post-film Q&A for Screenagers again, so I wanted to refresh my memory on some things, lest I let my passion overrule reason. Today, I put the books I keep in my office at school into a pile and snapped a photo. Can you guess which ones stirred up the most passionate responses? Actually, the hardest one to see here (sideways) is probably what prompted me to write that title back in April. Nancy Jo Sales' American Girls. I super highly recommend the book, don't get me wrong. (I recommend all of these!) But I think I was in a particularly tender place as a parent of teenage girls, and we were in Maui for Spring Break, and a lot of people at the beach were on their devices, and I could see the ocean RIGHT THERE. :)

New Media Recommendations

Anyway, more importantly right now, I need to share the newest guidelines from the American Academy of Pediatrics! We've been talking about these for a while, even if we forgot to write about them. Last year the AAP sort of "fast-tracked" a revision of the screen time guidelines they published several years ago. What we've all learned since that time is that not all screen time is alike, and hard and fast time limits don't accurately address the concerns we have about what kids are actually DOING while on screens. What they've come up with, and just published a few weeks ago, is sooooo helpful! While you can read more in-depth reports here and here, and Forbes actually did a pretty great review of the whole thing here, what I'm most excited to share with you are the new online tools to help you craft your family's Media Use Plan.

The Media Use Plan

Media Time Calculator
I DID THIS AT MY HOUSE! I wanted to try out the tools myself, and I have to say I came away very impressed. There are some really useful things here. First, you'll see a Media Time Calculator. This helpful tool allows you to put in your children's names and ages, and then you'll be taken to a timeline where the recommended hours of sleep and exercise are already input for you. As you add things to your child's day, like school hours, activities, chores, and family/meal times, you can see the huge chunk of media/screen time start to shrink. It's handy to begin here so you and your kids can begin thinking about how much time they actually spend doing certain things during their average day. What I found most helpful about it, as I experienced a series of eyerolls from my teenagers, was that I could ask questions like, "what seems like a reasonable amount of time for _____ to you?" And we could start from there.

The second part is the actual Family Media Plan. Here, you are walked through a series of options to select and choose as you craft your family's "rules" together. There are helpful links to current research within the sections, and if you actually have your child in the driver's seat on clicking the buttons and asking the questions, all the better. Together, you get to discuss and decide on:

  1. Screen Free Zones - where are they in your house? Bedrooms? The dinner table? Do you want to add a few of your own, like the car, or specify only one screen at a time, like no phones when we're all on the couch watching a movie? Customize at will!
  2. Screen Free Times - at what times of day are electronics off limits?
  3. Device Curfews - everyone's favorite! What time do we turn them off? Where do they live at night while they're charging?
  4. Choose & Diversity Your Media - tons of options for what to do when you have recreational screen time. PLUS, this is a good place to insert a conversation about the content of the media you consume.
  5. Balancing Online & Off-line Time - in this section you get to specifically talk about what you'll have time for when you decrease screen time.
  6. Manners Matter - even if it feels like you are repeating yourself, it's nice to have a REASON to reiterate your guidelines and expectations for behavior. Check all the boxes, but chat about each one. Then decide if that really covers it, or if you need more specific rules. In my house, for example, I'm adding a rule about digital manners when there are guests in our home, and asking permission before photographing and/or sharing things about others online.
  7. Digital Citizenship - another section where it's easy to check all the boxes, but please take the time to have a conversation about what these things actually look like in action.
  8. Safety First - digital rules for privacy and safety.
  9. Sleep & Exercise - make a commitment!
When you're done, you'll have a printable family plan that you can all sign and hold each other accountable to. I'm not saying this is going to be easy in practice, but the AAP has sure done their work to provide you with the most current information, and the easiest tools to help you put good healthy media habits into practice. 

My best advice would be to take your time, spread the conversation out over multiple sit-downs, and really dig into each section in a thoughtful manner. At the same time, in our busy households, it wouldn't be hard to do this whole thing in 15 minutes and be done with it. If that's all the time you have, seize it! But the value really comes in the conversation, the verbal agreement you all make with each other, and the time to express opinions, disagreements, compromises, and ownership of the rules. If you need to put your plan together quickly, do it, but realize you'll need to come back to it as your children grow and mature, and you might find after a couple weeks that the rules you thought would be so easy to follow and enforce need some realistic tweaking.

This isn't a one and done proposition. It's an ongoing conversation from which your family will benefit in the long run.

Let us know how it goes!