Healthy Play Diets: The Best Way to Set Limits on Screen Time
In my work as a clinical child psychologist, I frequently encounter parents bewildered by their kids’ fascination with video games, social media, and other screen-based technologies. While problems with these technologies seem to be worse with kids diagnosed with ADHD or autism spectrum disorder (ASD), even many of the siblings of my patients would choose to sit in front of a screen all day long if given the opportunity.
Parents who describe their children’s inability to sustain focus and persistence when it comes to chores and homework report struggling to get those same children to walk away from a video game. Arguments, conflict, punishment, and restrictions often follow attempts to transition from screen time to other activities. Most parents I talk to tell me that they would prefer to find an effective method to limit their children’s screen time. My suggestion is to institute a healthy Play Diet as a way to set screen time limits and restore balance to a child’s life.
Parents could simply remove all screens from their children’s lives, but this strategy is impractical and counterproductive in today’s digital world. For kids affected by ASD, video game play and social media may be one of their best tools to connect with peers. Our extensive research at LearningWorks for Kids and review of the findings from other experts in the field suggests that some screen-based activity such as playing action and puzzle video games can enhance children’s selective attention and problem-solving skills.
Children also need to master technology to be prepared for today’s world and in the future. The effective use of apps that assist them with organization, planning, and time management can lead to academic and real-world success, particularly for those children with attention, executive functioning, and learning issues.
From my perspective as a child clinical psychologist, I believe that the best method for moderating screen time for all kids is a proactive approach that I call a Play Diet. A balanced Play Diet consists of opportunities for physical, social, creative, and unstructured play in addition to digital play. Engaging in a variety of activities enhances the opportunity to connect with peers for children affected by autism. I have written extensively about how healthy Play Diets can help kids with ADHD and ASD in my book Playing Smarter in a Digital World.
Unfortunately, intervention beyond the institution of a healthy Play Diet is necessary for some children who are overly focused on screen-based technologies. Kids impacted by autism can become overly engaged with certain types of digital media and have problems transitioning to other activities. Here are some basic strategies to help:
1. Set a regular schedule for screen-based play.
Take into account the age of your child, with older children getting more access to screen time. The most common and successful schedules include “an hour per day,” “after your homework is done,” and o”nly on weekends or holidays.”
2. Choose what they already use.
Curate acceptable digital content and allow access only to that. Education does not come only from “educational games:” keep in mind that play leads to learning. Choose games by genres or educational value and allow your child to play these games on a regular basis. Be sure to use games that are “digitally nutritious” such as Minecraft, Portal 2, or The Legend of Zelda.
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3. Control the controller.
Be in charge and remember to be smarter than your kids. Parents need to be totally in control of access to technologies, particularly with kids with ADHD who are argumentative about screen time. This might mean placing the router to the Internet in your bedroom and turning it off at an appointed time, maintaining video game consoles under lock and key, or retaining ownership to tablet and mobile devices, allowing access only with your direct permission.
4. Play with others.
Allow video gameplay where your child plays with a sibling, peer, or teacher to ensure gameplay is safe, fun, and time-limited. Mediated play, where children have teachers or supervisors online with them, can be an engaging learning opportunity. Our team at LearningWorks for Kids has online Minecraft programs for kids affected by autism and ADHD all over the world, where our gamer guides teach executive functioning skills while engaged in a variety of Minecraft projects.
Ultimately, parents want to teach their kids balance, self-control, and good decision making. Give them opportunities to do so, but do not hesitate to intervene if they are not yet capable of this on their own. Twenty-first-century parents also need to model good screen time habits for their kids. Having a healthy adult Play Diet, where you get regular exercise, socialize with friends and family, and find time for creative and unstructured play time is crucial for your child to observe.
The goal should be to help children regulate their own amount of screen time and to enjoy other types of activities. The above strategies can help to reduce conflict with those children who are simply unable to do so. More intensive strategies using screen monitoring apps may be necessary for some kids affected by ASD or ADHD.
Randy Kulman, PhD is the Founder and President of LearningWorks for Kids, an educational technology company that specializes in using video games to teach executive-functioning and academic skills. For the past 30 years, Dr. Kulman has also been the Clinical Director and President of South County Child and Family Consultants, a private practice that specializes in the assessment of children with learning disorders and attention difficulties.
Additionally, Dr. Kulman is the author of numerous essays and book chapters on the use of digital technologies for improving executive-functioning skills in children. His current research projects include the development of a parent and teacher scale for assessing executive-functioning skills in children and a large survey study examining how children with ADHD and Autism use popular video games and apps. He is an advisor and occasional writer for ADDitude Magazine, Commonsensemedia.org, and Toca Boca. He is the author of two books, Train Your Brain for Success: A Teenager’s Guide to Executive Functions and Playing Smarter in a Digital World.
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This article was featured in Issue 77 – Achieving Better Health with ASD