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Winning in the screen age, even with ADHD.

Our screens are a blessing and a curse; our best friends and worst enemies, our lovers and assassins. We seek them out and we seek to separate from them. They provide worldwide connections yet isolate us from members of our own household. Bright and dark, yin and yang, good and evil. But here to stay, for sure.

In this age of distance learning, parents and kids are simultaneously embracing and struggling with screens. Screens can be powerful tools for learning; tools that previous generations could scarcely imagine. As a young man, Abraham Lincoln literally walked through 20 miles of snow in Illinois just to borrow a book—and then had to walk back to return it. We go: click. Need to learn something—from differential calculus to a few ukulele chords? Click: it’s all there.

Yes, but. What can start as an innocent quest for knowledge can rapidly suck you down into a vortex of distraction and wasted time in a way that looking something up in a book does not. Why are screens so compelling? The short answer is they are designed to be so.

Factors that can contribute to addiction have been extensively studied. While such research is generally well-intentioned, the answers it provides present a road map to designers for what to build to hook people on their technology. Modern screen games and entertainment often contain schema expressly intended to lead to addictive behavior. Chief among these schema is intermittent positive reinforcement. Initially studied in animals (think of lab rats pressing a bar to get a food pellet), research has shown that we are most likely to stick with (or get sucked into) a task when we are rewarded for it at a certain frequency, but with an unpredictable cadence. So for example, when you keep winning on the easier levels you are kicked up to harder levels, where you win sometimes and lose sometimes.

Screens present a world that seems real—they show us people that do and say things that people in real life might do and say. It is not obvious that what is being presented is just staged—the most dramatic and exciting bits only, with all the tough stuff edited out.

Watching screens is easy—it takes no effort—and so it is easy to get used to seeing a world that is a little prettier, a little faster, a little brighter than the real thing. It looks real enough so that we may begin to mistake it for a part of our world; to think we are really connected to it somehow. But in the real world nobody writes snappy comebacks for you; in fact you might stumble over your words and say something you regret. The real world also doesn’t just contain the fun parts—in addition to positive reinforcement it contains a lot of unreinforced negativity—the real world contains dirty dishes, homework, laundry, and unmade beds. Unlike the synthetic screen world, our real lives are not designed to maximize intermittent positive reinforcement.

The screen world tends to make us passive. If we don’t like the entertainment value, we swipe it away. Then we get into the habit of unconsciously judging the real world based on entertainment value. If it is not entertaining, we lose interest. And we can’t swipe away a teacher droning on, a meeting we need to go to, or a serious, complicated discussion. In previous generations, we had to find a way to make it interesting. Now, we just tune out or turn off because our hours of screens train us to do so. This may contribute to higher rates of ADHD.

What does staying on screens do to our brains? For one thing, it leads to a situation where our brains are constantly looking for the next easy-to-achieve positive reward. That is how we are built.

As a result of eons of evolution, our brains are naturally driven to seek what is pleasurable and avoid pain and suffering. This is encoded within the pleasure center of our brain that relies on the neurotransmitter dopamine.

As we have discussed in our previous post on dopamine, dopamine is involved in many brain functions, not just pleasure and reward. Its myriad functions are as diverse as control of motor functions and lactation. But when the pleasure center in the brain is activated, dopamine floods the area and we all find this naturally reinforcing. We seek out those activities that lead to dopamine release in this area, and miss it when it goes away. In the case of screens, the easy, passive forms of positive reward that they provide are highly addictive—once you get hooked, you want more and more. Some people get so hooked on their screens that the real world can no longer compete. They get to a point where the only thing that gets dopamine to go in their pleasure center is the fake world of screens. When such people try to negotiate the real world, they run into difficulties—because the real world is not like the fake screen world—they are poorly adjusted to cope with it. This leads to anxiety-prone, impulsive, and irritable people whose brains are constantly revved up in a futile attempt to get back to the happy state created by their screen interactions.

 Tatyana Dzemileva/Shutterstock
Source: Tatyana Dzemileva/Shutterstock

Parents have particular challenges. How do you deal with your bug-eyed child or teenager with a developing brain? You can’t just take all screens away. They are everywhere, part of life, and your kids are on them for school.

Here are five strategies:

1. Take significant electronic breaks. Break up the cycle of: exposure to screen stimuli -> dopamine reward -> need more screens. By taking breaks you allow dopamine to drift down so your brain can get used to tolerating lower levels without constant new reinforcement.

2. Practice being active. Don’t let your screens boss you around, where they say “pay attention to me,” and you respond “OK, yes I will!” You need to boss your screens around. Turn them off. Parents, you need to let your kids get to the point of achieving boredom and then find their way out of it without electronic diversions, because finding something to do is a valuable life skill. If kids are always given something to do, they forget how to find something to do. Long car rides are a great opportunity to work on this.

3. Retrain your brain so that hard things are rewarding. A lot of times, the pleasure of accomplishing hard tasks is prematurely upstaged by the fear and insecurity that they provoke. Try to take away the fear and insecurity: whenever you or your child says “it’s so hard,” remind yourself (and them) that “you can do hard things.” The more you repeat that the more you (and they) will believe it. With the immediate freak-out gone, your brain can focus on the reward that comes from actually accomplishing hard tasks, or at least trying to. Intermittent positive reward can work in your favor here too.

4. Educate yourself and your children. The screen world can seem real, especially to younger children, but even adults are easily deceived by make-up, special camera lenses and angles, lighting, and all the tricks employed to present an idealized world on screen. Make sure that your children understand that when they are watching something on a screen, they are seeing things in a way that somebody else wishes them to see, not the way it actually is. Knowledge is truly power.

5. Practice what you preach: Teach your children by example. They will do as you do, not as you say. This is a golden opportunity to connect to your kids in real time. Do something together: learn an instrument, paint something, exercise together. It may be slower paced and prone to mistakes, but will result in meaningful interactions. Hopefully relating to each other will cause its own dopamine flood that kids will seek out.

If you or your kids get sucked into the vortex of screens, it really could result in significant issues both personally and for our society long-term. Instead of being happy in “real life,” screen-dominated people become distressed when the real world does not provide them with the same excitement as the pretend world. Screen dominated people will not realize why they are distressed, since the pretend will feel so real to them; they will think the distress is due to problems with the real world. Screen dominated people will have a hard time connecting to other people and will have a hard time mustering up the courage to accomplish hard tasks. They will have little experience of real accomplishment—and what real accomplishment they do achieve may always suffer by comparison to the whitewashed version they are used to from the screen world, which is designed to look easy and pretty.

So get outside, reset, do something fun, and connect. Be good to your brain.

More from Benjamin Cheyette, M.D., and Sarah Cheyette M.D.
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More from Benjamin Cheyette, M.D., and Sarah Cheyette M.D.
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