Smartphones, Teens, and ADHD
Do you have a teen or tween with ADHD that is asking for their first smartphone? Or do you have a teen or tween with ADHD that already has a smartphone and you are concerned? If so, this post is for you. Let’s start by exploring why navigating smartphone use is more complex for a young person with ADHD then their neurotypical peers. We will then explore some recommendations for supporting your child.
ADHD and Smartphones
In today’s digital age, the influence of smartphones and social media on teens is profound, but for those with ADHD, the impact can be even more intense. The atypical dopamine system, often associated with ADHD, finds the immediate rewards of likes, comments, and notifications irresistible.
These digital platforms, which are designed to deliver instant gratifications, align seamlessly with the neurotransmitter system of teens with ADHD. These immediate rewards provide quick hits of dopamine for very little effort. For a teen, navigating less access to dopamine due to ADHD, the desire to maintain this easy access to dopamine is high and by comparison EVERYTHING, even getting up off the couch to grab a snack feels like more work.
Moreover, the attention difficulties inherent to ADHD are exacerbated by continuous access to the distractions of a smartphone. Teens with ADHD already have challenges sustaining attention on single tasks. The constant barrage of notifications and the multitasking nature of smartphones can further fragment attention, making it difficult to focus on schoolwork, conversations, or other tasks. And it’s not just about fleeting attention; many with ADHD can become so engrossed or ‘hyperfocused’ on stimulating tasks that they might spend hours on their devices, neglecting other responsibilities including the things that help to support ADHD symptoms naturally like sleep, movement, and healthy food.
In addition to the way that sleep can be impacted by frequent distractions and hyperfocus, the disruptive blue light emitted by screens can diminish the sleep-inducing hormone, melatonin. Considering that many teens with ADHD already face irregular sleep patterns, this only compounds challenges. For this reason, setting boundaries around smartphones and time of day is one of the most important recommendations that I make in the next section.
The social impact is one of the most significant to consider. While many find solace in online interactions, especially teens that may be struggling socially at school or in their community, the nuanced realm of digital communication can amplify misunderstandings. Additionally, the impulse-driven nature of social media combined with the impulsivity of ADHD can lead to impromptu posts or comments that lead to social consequences.
The constant world of comparison on these platforms can further dent self-esteem, especially for those who might already feel overwhelmed by the challenges of life with ADHD. The 24 hour access to social communication is another concern for all teens, but especially teens that struggle with anxiety or giving their nervous systems a chance to relax and feel safe.
Basically, smartphone use for a teen with ADHD is complex and the intersection of the atypical dopamine system and symptoms that a teen with ADHD is navigating leads to increased difficulty in forming a healthy relationship with smartphones. Does this mean that we shouldn’t allow our teens to have access to a smartphone? Believe it or not I don’t actually think that is the answer. Our teens will one day become independent adults with full control over their access to these tools. My recommendation is to use these years to teach them what a healthy relationship with their smartphone can feel like and what strategies and tools work to help them to create this balance. So many of us as parents struggle to find that balance, let’s use these years that we do get to have a say to support finding that healthy balance.
Supporting your Teen
I like the analogy from “Screenwise,” by Devorah Heitner that compares a smartphone to the ocean. It is similar to the way I describe all screen use to a playground in my recent screentime blog post. As a parent you would never just let your teen wade out into the ocean, by themselves, without checking conditions and providing supervision.
We should treat smartphones the same way, we need to check out the environment and provide supervision. Here are a few of my favourite recommendations that I have found success with when working with teen clients and their families.
1. Tool vs gift.
I do not recommend gifting a smartphone ever. If you have already gifted a smartphone it is ok. But from now on consider not gifting a device. We want to position smartphones as tools that are owned by the parent. There is something psychological about ownership and control when an item is a gift. You as parent should be the owner. I don’t even recommend older teens pay for their own cell plans. If you want to hold the boundaries you want to own the device.
2. Parental Tools
Maintaining emotional boundaries daily and tracking all of the places and activities your child might be doing online is a LOT of work. I highly recommend using a tool. I have a few of my favourites listed in the resources section below, but there are many others out there as well! The goal is to find a program that allows you to block access to apps and websites you aren’t comfortable with, limit time on others that can lead to hyperfocus and distraction, and to track communication or searches that might be unsafe. Using these tools should never be a secret from your teen. The goal is transparency and honesty on both sides.
3. Family Docking Station
I recommend that smartphones never live in bedrooms or beside beds for all members of the family including adults. There is rarely anything good happening on a smartphone after midnight and everyone’s nervous system’s need a break from social communication, stimulation, and distractions.
I recommend a centrally located spot to plug all devices in by a certain time of night. If a teen needs to send a message or do something after that time, they can go do so, but they have to stay standing by the station. I then like a secondary time that all apps shut down for the night (using a tool) to allow for a needed rest and break.
4. Regular Review of Expectations
I prefer conversations over contracts. When navigating the impulsivity of ADHD I know that there will be mistakes and a learning curve. A contract with big consequences can lead to fear and a desire to hide a mistake. Additionally, with time new lessons often emerge. I recommend regular conversations about the smartphone and how it is going, have they noticed anything/have you noticed anything. The goal here is learning and creating that healthy balance. Here are some talking points to try:
- Have you had anything happen on social media that made you uncomfortable?
- What is your favourite part of having a smartphone?
- Do you feel in control of your smartphone or do you sometimes feel like it is in control of you?
- Do you feel that you are using your smartphone too much?
- What do you notice about the way your friends use their smartphones?
- Are you worried about anything?
- How much smartphone use is too much?
- When is it appropriate to have your smartphone out?
- How do you feel when your friend is on a smartphone when you are together in person?
- How might your friend feel if you are on your smartphone all the time?
- Are there any apps or websites that make you lose track of time?
5. Screen Free Daytime Activities
We all need breaks and not just at night. When engaged in meal times, physical activities and sports, and connection time with friends and family it is important to take a break from distractions that split focus especially when focus is already a challenge. I recommend using that family docking station instead of keeping smartphones in the pocket all the time especially for certain activities.
6. Model as a Parent
My final recommendation is to try out some of these tools to create balance and a healthy smartphone relationship for yourself as a parent. Teens are great at noticing when we ask them to do something that we don’t actually practice ourselves.
Final Thoughts for The Tween Parents
If you are catching this article before allowing your tween or teen to have access to a smartphone here is a list of thoughts and recommendations for starting off this relationship. The key here is that you don’t have to jump off the deep end. Easing into access is a great way to see how your child is impacted by a smartphone and what programs and apps have the most impact.
- Allow your tween to start by using your phone to text, call, and video chat with friends.
- Try a call and text only family phone that is used by all family members and only as needed (sports practice when they need a pick up or home alone for emergencies).
- Try a smartwatch that can only call and text to start.
- Start with a smartphone with limited apps and no social media (see options in the resources section).
- Start with a phone that only lives at home and on approved outings, no school days.
- Try location limits such as no smartphones in bedrooms or other unsupervised spaces.
- Be very clear that you are monitoring all content and use from the start.
External Parental Tools
Meet Circle – https://meetcircle.com/
Norton Family – https://family.norton.com/web/?sr=https://www.google.com/
Qustodio – https://www.qustodio.com/en/
Kaspersky Safe Kids $ – https://usa.kaspersky.com/safe-kids
Integrated Safety Options
iPhone – Privacy Restrictions (Built in) – iPhones for example within Settings -Screen time – Content and Privacy Restrictions. You can set time limits to apps, limit websites, and more with a parental password. Go to: support.apple.com/en-ca/HT201304 for instructions
Android Phone – Google Family Link can be integrated directly into the phone’s software if it is android 7.0 or newer. Go to: https://families.google/familylink/
Gabb – No internet, no games, no social media. This is a great safe starter phone for tweens. – https://gabb.com/
Pinwheel – Is a safe step up from Gabb that works well for teens. There are hundreds of popular apps, but they allow access to apps with in-depth safety ratings. They don’t have social media apps, addictive games, or ad-driven apps. I wish this one was available in Canada! – https://www.pinwheel.com/
Bark- Is a third step up. It does have internet and social media access, but it offers built-in automatic monitoring of many apps and social media platforms. https://www.bark.us/
The options for kid friendly cellphones in Canada is unfortunately incredibly limited. My recommendation is to use either google family link or apple’s integrated software to set the limits you are looking for manually.
Or explore something like a flip phone or very basic device.
Alcatel Go Flip – This is one of the top recommended basic flip phones for kids. They can access the internet so it is something that still needs monitoring.