We all want our kids to have balance in their lives. When we see our kids spend countless hours on YouTube, Tik Tok, or Xbox, we fear that they will never be able to pull themselves away from these attention-grabbing platforms. And there’s good reason to be concerned - this is exactly what these platforms were designed to do. Everything on our screens has been programmed to release the most amount of dopamine - a neurotransmitter that reinforces a reward system to keep us coming back to the reward source. This can help explain our need to regularly check social media, continue a Netflix binge, or play another round of a favorite video game.
Like most distractions, our attraction to screens is fueled by a number of neurological processes related to executive functioning - most notably self-regulation, which governs our ability to resist impulses that provide immediate gratification.
Although our Executive Functioning abilities provide a solution for resisting these impulses, the section of our brain responsible for these skills - the prefrontal cortex - does not finish developing until our mid-20s. As a result, countless teens are fighting an uphill battle against their own neuropsychology and developmental timeline. Throw in learning differences such as ADHD, as well as endless digital distractions, and it’s no wonder so many students struggle to resist screens and stay on track.
According to Dr. Clifford Sussman, a child and adolescent psychiatrist and psychotherapist who has been a pioneer in recognizing and treating internet gaming disorder since 2008, “Excessive screen use becomes a problem when your devices start to control you instead of you controlling the devices." Dr Sussman reminds us that the definition of a screen addiction is that the activity cannot be successfully self-controlled despite negative consequences. Students may experience academic problems, relationship problems, and/or health problems as a result of their screen use. "Typical symptoms are preoccupation with screen use over other activities, lying about screen use, missing school or work due to screen use or related sleep problems, failure to launch due to screen use, or stealing money for screen use,” according to Dr. Sussman. Please seek professional help if this is the situation for your child.
How Executive Function Coaching Helps Students Achieve Balance in their Screen Use
Developing Executive Functioning is key to helping teens break the cycle and resist impulses by providing them with an enhanced ability to maintain focus, prioritize what is important, and be self-aware of potential sources of distraction. It's normal for students to struggle to self-manage in these areas on their own. Executive Function coaches can assist this process by first prioritizing what skills a student needs to develop and then providing them with the right tools and support to help build, refine, and maintain these skills.
In the case of problematic screen use, a coach might help create a roadmap for overcoming bad habits around screens that taps into the same reward circuit perpetuating the cycle of excessive screen use in the first place. Allowing strategies that let screen time be a reward for an accomplishment (finishing homework or making concrete progress on studying for a test, for example) are just some of the approaches a coach might use to achieve this. A coach can also work in collaboration with a mental health professional in order to coordinate a cohesive approach to helping a student. Most important of all, with coaching, students struggling with self management skills receive expert 1:1 support that helps reinforce students' personal commitments surrounding behavior change. Students also benefit from a coach's guidance through the inevitable slip-ups and struggles that come with transforming old habits.
It's important to note that Executive Function coaching is not therapy and is not a cure for screen addiction. To learn more on how to identify and tackle screen addiction, please visit Dr. Sussman’s website.