If you’re a parent of a child with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, you know that it’s a myth that kids with ADHD can’t focus. In fact, their attention can be directed quite intensely onto technology they find fascinating, which includes cell phone games, texting, the internet, and social media. These facets of mobile phone use provide an endless supply of feedback and enticements that keep the pleasure center of the brain very happy, which can make pulling a child away from their phone or yours a real struggle.

Though researchers do not yet know whether excessive phone use increases the risk of ADHD, encouraging thoughtful and limited cell phone use is considered an important life skill for any child. However, there is a correlation between ADHD and high levels of cell phone use, and the increase in children diagnosed with the disorder make researchers wonder how the rise of mobile technology impacts the attention levels of young children and teens. One study found that children who make calls and play games on cell phones were at increased risk for ADHD. However, it is possible that children may play more games on their phone because they already have symptoms of ADHD, such as inattention and hyper-focus.

Some children can become engrossed with a particular smart phone game or app and later toss it aside, but kids with ADHD are at higher risk for becoming behaviorally and cognitively dependent on their device. This can be a cause for concern, as researchers have linked cell phone dependence to symptoms of anxiety, depression, sleep disturbances, and low self-esteem.

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Being dependent or overinvolved with a cell phone isn’t just about the number of games a child plays or the texts they send. Kids with ADHD can become caught in a behavioral loop, mindlessly checking different social media apps or seeking to achieve the reach level in a difficult game. Dependence has a cognitive component as well, with the child thinking about or becoming hyperfocused on being able to access and use their phone. For example, they might become distressed when the battery dies, when their phone is not in sight, or when they cannot sleep with their cell phone at night. To evaluate your child’s dependence on their cell phone, consider the following questions.

Does your child…

  • think about or ask for their cell phone when they’re not using it?
  • begin to use their phone for no particular reason?
  • engage in arguments with parents about their phone use?
  • interrupt whatever they’re doing when they receive an alert on their cell phone?
  • lose track of how much time they spend using their cell phone?
  • feel distressed when their cell phone is off or out of reach?
  • feel unable to reduce their cell phone use?

4 Action Steps

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that parents start young, by discouraging phone use by children ages two and under. For older children, they encourage parents to monitor the length of use and the content accessed on their child’s phone and to keep mobile devices out of a child’s bedroom to ensure healthy sleep habits. Here are some additional action steps for addressing cell phone dependence in your child with ADHD.

Model Behavior

Make sure to check your own cell phone habits before you create a technology use plan with your child or teen. Designating no-phone spaces in the house (i.e. kitchen or living room) or times (i.e. mealtimes or bedtimes) can improve family relationships and help everyone feel more in control of their cell phone use.

Create Alternatives

Less phone use won’t feel like a punishment if kids and teens have flexible, fun options when it comes to their attention. What activities does your child enjoy that don’t involve screens, and how can they be utilized when your child seems particularly dependent on their phone? A day at the park, a museum, or the pool can prove a much-needed break in hyper-focus.

Avoid Abstinence

As they progress in their education and eventually their career, your child will rely increasingly on mobile devices and other technology. Abstinence from phone use is not the goal, because it’s not sustainable for the future. If your child can start to use their cell phone thoughtfully and monitor their use, then it will only benefit them as they move forward in life.

Ask for Help

Never hesitate to ask for yourself if setting limits and negotiating use doesn’t seem to work. Mental health professionals can provide cognitive and behavioral interventions tailored to treat dependence and can help your child learn alternative ways of coping and directing their attention. They can also help families negotiate rules that benefit everyone and provide a break from being glued to cell phones.

If you’re not sure where to start, have an open and honest conversation with your child or teen about their cell phone use. What do they like about mobile technology? What makes them happy that doesn’t require a cell phone? Finding balance with technology use can be difficult, even for adults. So practice patience with your child, and consider how you can help them develop a thoughtful and healthy relationship with their mobile device.

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Last Updated: Sep 24, 2019