Can reducing screen time help kids with attention disorders?

Michael Rich, MD, MPH

Michael Rich, MD, MPH, is Children’s Hospital Boston’s media expert and director of Children’s Center on Media and Child Health. Take a look at his blog archive or follow him on Twitter @CMCH_Boston.

Earlier this week he discussed some of the scientific reasoning behind TurnOff Week, here he talks about how lessening screen time (while monitoring other environmental stimuli,) may be beneficial for children with attention deficit disorders.

Q: For the past 6 weeks, we’ve not allowed our 7-year-old son to use video, TV, or the computer, and we have noticed a slight improvement in his hyperactivity. Do you think that keeping the screens off for a longer period of time will continue to improve his ability to focus?Milder without Media in Scranton, PA

A: Dear Milder,

Research shows that while screen media like TV and video games can contribute to symptoms of attention deficit and hyperactivity, they are not the only cause of attention disorders. Instead, attention disorders come from a combination of factors like genetics, educational strategies, discipline at home, and electronic screen media. Addressing any of these factors will help with the symptoms but probably won’t solve the problem all together.

Does TV over stimulate children with hyperactive behavioral disorders?

Think of it this way: If your son’s stomach hurt every time he ate, his physician might suspect that he’s allergic to milk. She might recommend that he stop eating all dairy for several weeks and then slowly reintroduce milk products, one food at a time. By conducting this somewhat controlled experiment, you could determine which foods are clearly linked to his stomachaches, and your son could avoid those. Although making that change wouldn’t fix his allergy, staying away from the foods that make him feel sick would certainly help him feel better.

You could do this same kind of thing with reintroducing screens to his routine.  If he is naturally hyperactive and removing screens is likely to help him (and it sounds like it is already helping!), then if you’re planning on reintroducing screen media, do it slowly so that you can figure out just how much time is beneficial for him.

Screens are just one of a whole variety of circumstances for you to work with. Just as you are experimenting with removing screens, it might be worth paying attention to how to behaves depending on the foods he eats and how much sleep he gets, as well as the amount of time he spends with friends, in school, and using media. Then respond to what you learn in a thoughtful and flexible way, by removing or changing those things that make his symptoms worse and increasing the behaviors that help him focus.

Enjoy your media and use them wisely,

The Mediatrician®