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Screen Addiction and ASD

Late summertime means structure and demands are low. Camps have finished or gotten boring. The weather, in most of the US, is terribly hot. Families have had their vacation, or are waiting to go on their vacation. All of this means that the opportunities to succumb to our favorite (de)vices are prevalent. I speak with a lot of parents about screen addictions this time of year.

Screen, gaming, and internet addiction is a real thing, and not to be trifled with. There are a growing number of resources out there for addressing these addictions. For parents (and interested kids), I often promote several resources. Kimberly Young ( has been working with internet addiction for a while now, and has good resources on her webpage. The book Reality is Broken, by Jane McGonigal offers a non-clinical look at the world of gaming and has been an incredible resource for my practice. One can search "internet addiction" in any search engine and generate a plethora of options for resources.

Treating screen addictions, however, is not the point of this post. The point is to discuss alternative explanations for this behavior that looks like your child has a screen addiction. Addiction is a very serious term, and I want to be clear with families that when I suggest someone has an "addiction", I mean business. So, if we see a set of behaviors that looks like screen addiction (e.g., spends long hours looking at screens, might complain of pain or discomfort from looking at screens, would rather be on screens than do anything else, is angry/irritable when screens are limited, etc.), but are not actual addictions, what else could they be? Here are some of the explanations I have come up with in recent years as the result of performing a Functional Analysis (i.e., comprehensive assessment of a complex system of interrelated behaviors) of many possible screen addictions.

1. Your child has nothing else to do.

To most parents, this one seems too obvious. They often tell me they would love to have "nothing to do" or unlimited free time. Oh, the things they would accomplish. Teenagers do not think like this. No teen I have ever met (including myself) has ever woken up in the morning with nothing planned for the day and thought, "How am I going to change the world today?" In fact, I kind of doubt anyone has ever done this. Vacations are nice, but what if your whole life was a vacation-all of your material needs were taken care of, you had plenty of people telling you what to do and where to go so you never needed to make a choice again, etc.? Or, consider the family vacation that was a little too long and how you secretly looked forward to getting back to work so you could "get something done". I can tolerate about 2 days laying on the beach, and then I'm ready for something productive. So is your kid. If you want your teen to do something other than look at screens, they would benefit from being told what that could be, and then held to account to get it done.

2. Even if they had something to do, you child would be unable to execute it.

Have you ever talked through the steps of "getting together with a friend" with your child? It is actually an incredibly complex activity. Contact the friend (assuming you have a friend), coordinate schedules, decide what to do (i.e., compromise, which is a challenging task for children), determine logistics (again, a challenge when you have to now coordinate with a parent's schedule for transportation), figure out a way to fund the endeavor, and on and on. And, the outing might be a total bust and no fun at all. Or, you could just look at a screen. Once you figure out what else to do, parents would do well to help their children coordinate it.

3. Screens are usually more fun and interesting anyway.

This is a reality few parents can fully understand. The content for screens, including videos, games, and text is so prolific and so heavily filtered and so convenient (and the market is so competitive) that real life often cannot compete with what is being offered on screens with an internet connection. Parents need to direct the discussion away from what's easiest toward what's more fulfilling and satisfying, and why. Children these days have a hard time distinguishing between entertaining and interesting.

4. An increasing number of positive and legitimate social interactions are happening online.

This is a real thing and we need to accept it. It may be the case that face to face social interactions are the highest-quality interactions (I only suspect this is true, I do not have actual proof yet), but an increasing quantity of social interactions are happening online. When your child is "wasting" time online, there is an ever increasing chance they are actually socializing. I should also mention that most of the children I talk to confirm they would prefer to socialize in person rather than online, but online communication has made connecting with others so much easier. Even I talk with my parents way more often since the advent of video-chat. And I do not apologize for that either. There are many ways the internet has actually improved our lives, and parents would do well to admit that more often, and especially to their children.

Does your child have a screen addiction? If you are concerned with this, in addition to doing research online, parents need to consult a professional such as your family doctor, a counselor, or a psychologist. But what if it is the case that your child is bored, has an under-developed social life, has executive functioning challenges or deficits, or has a complex mix of both positive and negative ways they spend their time online? Children may benefit from having restricted access to screens, but they need to also be directed into how else to structure their time and then held to task. You will find that this is not just the way to teach them to manage their screen time, but a way to develop skills in numerous areas that will have a positive impact socially, academically, vocationally, and otherwise.

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