Tuesday, January 23, 2018

Screen time and kids and teens with disabilities: How to deal

Last week, I saw Screenagers, a documentary about teens and screen time. It was an illuminating and disturbing look at the profound impact iPhones, video games and other screen sucks have on our children and on parents, too. The film features families struggling with iAddiction—including the 13-year-old daughter of filmmaker/family physician Delaney Ruston—along with input from experts.

The journal Pediatrics devoted an entire November supplement to youth and digital media, with 22 articles covering how it can negatively affect cognitive development, language and attention development, psychosocial behavior and brain structure. For parents of children with intellectual disability, like me, it's particularly concerning how this could further affect their cognition. There are physical health hazards, too: One recent study found that children with ID, who already prone to less physical activity than their peers without ID, were four times more likely to develop high blood pressure—and those who were big on screen time were most at risk.

The colors, shapes and sounds on a screen trigger dopamine, a brain chemical messenger associated with feelings of reward and pleasure. It's easy to see, then, how actual screen addiction is possible, and why a teen might prefer this instant gratification over real-world connections. Besides, phones can serve as crutches during this socially awkward time of life. One girl in the film noted that looking at her phone gave her something to do in a crowd. This can be especially true for teens with autism, who may find parties and other social gatherings overwhelming.

Instagraming and snapchatting may be enjoyable, but the cumulative effect can literally be depressing: Adolescents who spend more than an hour or two a day peering at screens (social media, the web, Facetime, texting or video games) and less time doing nonscreen activities (in-person social interacting, sports/exercise, even homework) are less happy, concludes a new study in the journal Emotion. [Insert frowny face emoticon here.]

Exacerbating all this is the fact that teens lack self control, which can lead to much family drama. "Get off your phone/iPad!!!" is the most commonly heard phrase at our home. For Ben, it's "No more phone!" because he loves to grab mine, scroll through photos and watch tot videos—yes, he knows how to scroll and how to find videos on YouTube, not exactly accomplishments I'm proud of.

We have some extra challenges with Max. For one, his iPad has a speech app which he uses throughout the day, both at school and at home. (This is an amazing thing, why I once wrote Steve Jobs a thank-you letter). He also uses the SnapType Pro app for homework (he can take screen shots of worksheets and type on them) and works on grammar and math on IXL. So to remove his iPad would mean to take away his ability to communicate and learn—even if plenty of times he's using it to watch fire truck videos or do searches relevant to his current fixations, most recently, buying furnishings and appliances for his fantasy Jamaica home.

The other reality about Max is that he does not have a ton of ways of occupying himself. Sabrina will sit in her room and read a book. Max's reading is coming along, but he is not into doing that on his own. Sabrina will go to the mall with friends. Max doesn't have peers he can do that with, unless I organize and chaperone it. If Dave or I are not engaging him or taking him to activities, the truth—as awful as it may sound—is that his iPad is his BFF, one he can take with him everywhere.

Screen time was an even bigger issue when Max was younger, and the only way we could eat out as a family and avoid meltdowns was to distract him with movies on an iPad or a phone. These days, he no longer needs that; back then, though, Max could sit glued to the screen for the entire hour and a half at the restaurant, and Dave and I were downright grateful for it. It was our 9.7-inch savior. Some weekends, it still is, especially during winter when we hibernate inside.

A couple of Apple investors are after the company to do more to combat iPhone addiction among kids. That would be outstanding, but for now it's all about what parents can do. One mom in the film declared carpool to be a phone-free zone. I also heard about iPhone contracts that parents give their teens, like this one by blogger Janell Burley Hofman that went viral. I missed that opp, but I'm planning to sit down as a family and come up with guidelines for all of us, because Dave and I sure on our phones a lot.

Right now, the kids don't watch TV or videos on weekday evenings, Max included. We avoid screen time at the table, other than Max's speech app. That's worked well for us, but the weekends remain an i-free-for-all and that's going to change. When we have our family discussion, we'll make sure Max understands that screen time for communicating doesn't mean all-the-time video. I'm also going to look into programs that limit screen time and app access, including Qustodio, Norton Family Premier and FamilyTime, among others.

My favorite point in the movie was about planning more activities so your kids will be forced to tear their faces away from their screens and actually live life. It's a challenge coming up with stuff that interests Max, 13-year-old Sabrina and 2-year-old Ben, and too often we end up hanging around the house. But if we make it a priority, same as we need to make less screen time a priority, we'll figure it out.

When I think back to my childhood, the memories that have stuck with me are the things I did with my parents: going to Sunday puppet shows at the mall with my dad, staying in a cabin in Vermont on a family summer trip, seeing the Nutcracker in Lincoln Center in New York with my mom. Years from now, my children are not going to remember the Snapchats and YouTube binges. "Obsessing over Kylie Jenner's Instagram got me where I am today!" no future memoir will read. What's going to stick with my kids—what's going to help them develop and grow and explore and feel connected with both their family but humanity—is getting out there and seeing the world...not a screen.

You can find local screenings of Screenagers here


  1. link to a PDF download: https://hrcak.srce.hr/file/49661

    This is an article about the (moral) panic of the late 18th century about how the reading of novels was going to destroy society.
    Not dissimilar from the outcries against television, the internet, and phones. I believe even radio had its day.

    Not that it is bad to limit screen time for those of any age, but that frequently results in these studies are overstated, especially around the expected impact long term. Our phones are unique in that they can be all of these and more: they can be a novel, a tv show, a radio program, a lecture, research and learning device, the ability to send and receive letters, video games, a chance to connect with friends and relatives that was impossible or cost prohibitive a decade ago, and so much more

    1. Thank you for sharing that, both the article and you raise good points. I didn't mean to short shrift today's screen wonders. As a parent, I'm grateful the online information and community that helps me raise my kids and enables us all to easily connect with others. As a journalist, I am glad for the Internet every single day—when I first started as a magazine editor, I had to call the NYC telephone reference service to verify, say, the birth date of a celebrity (212-340-0849, I'll never forget that number). Online shopping, instant access to books and music—I could go on and on. Still, the neurological responses triggered by our screens—and the portability of our iDevices, not a thing with TV—raise unique concerns about their impact on our brains and especially children, whose brains are still developing.

  2. Never mind the mid 20 th century moral panic about comic books. Calm down. Think long and hard if this is about neophobia (that's what the panic about novels was). Don't make silly excuses either. You could get max a separate iPad with a downloaded speech app and disable internet if that was the real issue.

    1. ...or I could choose not to spend money on a separate iPad (and having yet another device in our house) and impose some basic rules around screen-time, which is what I'll be doing.

    2. Or enable guided access and lock your child into a specific app. I do this anytime I let the kids play with my phone. Guided access can also let you set a time limit for using that app

  3. I agree with the commenters who point out that there have been similar panics about every kind of technology. I recommend danah boyd's "It's Complicated" for another view. But, I also think that as parents, we should be aware of the decisions we're making around social media and digital interaction. Blogs like yours -- as an example -- are important to me, but I can't let them allow me to completely ignore my in person interactions. The same thing is true for the kids -- what aren't they doing because they are on the screen? I like thinking about the problem in those terms and then trying to find ways for us to do what we think we are missing. Carpool is an example -- and, making it phone free certainly does increase social interaction in the car in my carpool.

  4. As a disabled person living in the 60's and 70's, I noticed that human interaction was as tough as it is now, certain attitudes of acceptance is still present, but depends on the level depending on the situation. Screen time then did not exist and we were forced to either occupy ourselves alone or avoid all human interaction. As a kid I generally focused on doing stuff alone and avoiding human interaction.

    When the internet came along, it seemed easier to interact, but more attitudes developed that are bullying and severe in nature to do the same left out feeling of yesteryear. So disabled kids tend to occupy themselves alone and tend to want to avoid human contact.

  5. Have you thought about getting a dog? I know it's not an option for everyone, especially preoccupied special needs parents. But dogs make great, unconditional friends; you may even be able to get therapy dog training so Max could take the dog places that wouldn't otherwise allow pets.

  6. My daughter and I have purely physical disabilities with average cognitive abilities.

    I agree with an above commenter; the disabled have always found something to do solitarily. Taking away all or almost all screen time won't magically give Max the social life you'd like him to have.

    I grew up in the 80's and 90's, before tablets and smart phones. Even before most households had a computer. We had TV. My daughter is growing up now. She never watches TV, only watches YouTube and plays Minecraft/Roblox. We're both good at reading and love to write stories. We both suck at math. I had a sister and lots of cousins who were mostly out of the picture by middle school, my sister had her own friends soon enough. My daughter has no siblings and few cousins. Even given these 2 very different lives we both have spent the same amount of time with people and on solitary activities. That is to say, we spend a lot of time around people but occupying ourselves. Because we can't do everything that others can do. Because people are less accepting - yes even now - of people who's abilities may be limited in any way. Because that's just how it is.

  7. I loved so much of this! My kids are often on screens, especially my three year old daughter with an ID when we're out in public for the same reasons you mentioned with Max in the restaurant. But last week when my kids were off school for three days I made it a priority to get out of the house with planned activities and I was surprised by how well they did, and when we got home and it was 4pm and there wasn't a screen on all day. My daughter's preschool also writes in "no screen time" days for part of her "homework" and that has been a good way for us to reset our digital brains and play more too!


  8. Ellen,

    Thank you for taking screentime seriously. The last line of your post kind of sums it up beautifully. This article (http://bit.ly/2n1VBii) covers digital addiction in detail and I thought it might be an interesting resource for you.

    The benefits of EdTech (http://bit.ly/2DLKlB0), especially for children with special needs, risks getting diluted due to the risks that excessive screentime brings along.

    I would invite you to check out Mobicip as an effective internet safety tool to limit and control screentime apart from other features.


Thanks for sharing!

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