Executive Functions and Screen Addiction: Managing Two Sides of a Coin

Boy with headphones

Are video gaming, surfing online, and TV uncontrollable forces in your or the life of someone you know? Are digital screens getting in the way of productivity, family life, and general health? Is there a high level of anger and conflict associated with managing screen time? The degree to which you experience these is related to how well an individual can regulate his or her attention, emotions, and behavior, or what we call executive functions. For those diagnosed with ADHD or a learning disability, balancing productivity and screen time will require strategies that also develop the ability to self-regulate. First, let's look at some ways in which executive function deficits and screen addictions interrelate:

Stimulation: Video games and movies provide a strong stimulus that may cause those who struggle with attention to feel more focused and centered and less at the whim of uncontrollable thoughts. Some individuals seek out intense stimulation for itself. Others use it to blot out negative feelings such as anxiety about work or academic performance in school. 

social stimulation

Social: Interactive programs and video games bring people together in ways that hanging out in-person may not. For those with social anxiety or who are impulsive in social situations, these games provide a structured social environment that may help them connect with other people successfully.

Competence: Some people are just very good at video games and feel more competent in the virtual world than in the real one. In it, they are not mismanaging time, earning poor grades, or feeling embarrassed for failing at something yet again.

Time: Those who struggle with time management lose a sense of the passage of time when they are focused on screens. They will miss meals, ignore personal hygiene, forget chores, care less about homework, stay up all night, and get angry when their time is up. They can also feel anxious that any restrictions put in place won't give them enough time to enjoy themselves.

Emotional Control: Gaming will especially exacerbate individuals with low frustration tolerance. They will struggle to control their anger with their own and others’ performance. They may have a hard time recovering emotionally from losing a game or not being able to play the game when they want. The intensity of stimulation may also leave them feeling irritable.

Impulsivity: Some may make impulsive and potentially destructive decisions when it comes to screen time. They may struggle to transition from the screen to the non-preferred task and may even break into locked areas, sneak around in the middle of the night to play games or watch shows, or lie about their screen usage.

For those who struggle with executive functions, managing screen time should be part of a strategy to improve both areas. Here are some suggestions:

healthy social activity
  • Address emotional needs through family or individual counseling.
  • Engage professionals such as executive function coaches, educational therapists, or tutors to help with academic skills, organization, productivity, etc.
  • Create a daily structure and schedule for screen time and other activities. Use timers and alarms to organize time.
  • Plan for other activities when screen time is over. Ensuring that there is some positive stimulation in subsequent activities is important!
  • Set a goal to be productive before using a screen: clean the room, complete your homework, finish the chores, start that report, etc.
  • Get involved in other stimulating activities such as family sports, outdoor activities, hobbies, and organizations.
  • Find structured social activities such as volunteering to develop friendships outside of gaming.
  • Use UnGlue or similar apps to develop independent screen time management.

Do you know someone who is struggling with executive function skills? Dr. Clarence Perkins is an Executive Function and ADHD Coach who can help that person reach his or her goals. Call or write for a free consultation.

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