Childhood ADHD and Screen Time

Medically Reviewed by Dan Brennan, MD on May 28, 2022
4 min read

Can a child’s screen time cause attention problems, make ADHD worse, or just make it harder for parents to battle its flashy, fast-paced allure? All of the above, according to some experts and studies.

A large study of 5-year-olds compared the attention spans of kids who watched less than 30 minutes per day with those who spent more than 2 hours before a screen. The results were dramatic: The children who gazed the longest had 7.7 times more of a chance of meeting criteria for an ADHD diagnosis. Screen time even outranked other major things that can cause attention problems, including lack of proper sleep, social and economic status, and parents’ stress.

In a similar vein, an Indian study found preschool children who had ADHD watched more than the 1 hour per day recommended for 2- to 4-year-olds by the World Health Organization (WHO).

The results don’t necessarily mean screen time itself causes the attention problems. Many things can come into play:

  • Screen sessions can eat up time that could be spent doing things that require more patience or brainpower.
  • Screen activity can “suck in” kids who are prone to have attention issues.
  • Boredom can drive screen-seeking. Watching can become a go-to habit that keeps kids from having to come up with other ways to spend their time.

Most of us know what it’s like to be riveted for a while to a screen, whether it’s a TV, phone, or tablet. But for children with ADHD, the pull is even stronger. Short attention spans crave the ever-changing menus of flashy graphics, sound, and action, delivered with the thrill of instant gratification. Electronics can send steady doses of dopamine – a neurotransmitter – straight to the brain’s reward center.

And the damage doesn’t stop with an ADHD diagnosis. Ongoing screen overload can cause symptoms to get worse, and cause other problems as well.

A survey of tech use during the COVID-19 pandemic turned up not just higher chances of ADHD symptoms, but more harmful impact from screen time on kids who’d already been diagnosed. The screen overload, which 90% of families reported, had severe effects:

  • It made ADHD symptoms worse.
  • It ramped up other mental health issues, such as anxiety.
  • It made general behavior worse, according to the vast majority – almost 85% – of caregivers.
  • Forcing kids offscreen triggered outbursts of frustration and anger.
  • It led to a lack of interest in school or other activities.
  • It caused sleep problems.

Exercise is one of the main reasons screen timeouts are crucial. Kids need to be away from electronics (unless they’re following an exercise video) to get their blood pumping. Physical movement does the opposite of what a screen does – it flips their attention “on” switch and ignites their mind’s main functions, including memory. Exercise also helps with impulse control.

When children don’t get enough exercise, screen time creeps up again, taking even more time from keeping up with homework, playing or hanging out with friends, and getting enough sleep.

About 25% of people with ADHD, and a little over 4.5% of adolescents, are addicted to the internet. The signs aren’t hard to spot. It’s key to remember these behaviors lie on a spectrum from mild to severe. The main question to ask is, does the screen habit persist even when it causes problems in the family, at school, and with doing anything else?

Some clues are:

  • Strong reactions – like anger and depression – when you try to pull your child away from the screen
  • Your child prefers to “socialize” online with people they don’t know, over interacting in the “real world.”
  • Despite how many hours your child spends in front of the screen, they seem unable to control the habit.
  • Your child seems to need hard- and software upgrades to keep up with new technology. This means their tolerance has gone up.

Kids with ADHD easily lose track of how much time has melted away since they logged or switched on. Talk with your child and get them to help measure how long certain activities should take, what they’re trying to do, and so on. Together, set “stop points.” Then, agree on something active they’ll do after logging off, such as playing outside or making something.

Keep screens your child uses in a common area to help monitor time and what they watch. Let them know you’ll be checking in to make sure they follow through with content you agree on.

Set screen-time cut-off an hour before bed. It’ll allow your child time to unwind and detach from electronics, and help set up a healthier sleep pattern. Also, keep screens – of all kinds, including phones – out of the bedroom.

Sign a contract. The American Association of Pediatrics offers a free media planning tool to help review and plan screen-time needs, time required, and so forth. This can help the whole family get the most out of electronics, while dropping habits that waste time or cause problems.