Aug 18, 2023
The use of screens increased substantially during the Covid-19 pandemic. For the twice exceptional population—those identified as gifted with coexistent learning differences like ADHD, dyslexia,
The use of screens increased substantially during the Covid-19 pandemic. For the twice exceptional population—those identified as gifted with coexistent learning differences like ADHD, dyslexia, Autism, or processing disorders—this “epidemic within the pandemic” resulted in deeper isolation and greater parent frustration. Why was increased screen time detrimental for twice exceptional kids, and what is the best parent approach to dial back screen usage?
A 2022 study in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) indicated that screen usage among children during the Covid-19 pandemic rose on average by 52 percent, with twelve- to eighteen-year-olds experiencing the highest increase. Parents were hard pressed to monitor or limit screen time because school was online and parents needed their children to be engaged for large chunks of the day.
After pandemic restrictions were lifted, screen time usage did not drop, according to recent research supported by the National Institutes of Mental Health. As school transitioned back to in-person classrooms, teachers continued utilizing screens during school and for homework. These factors, along with gaming and social media algorithms designed to maximize engagement, make it very difficult for parents or children to monitor and minimize screen usage.
There are many reasons why twice exceptional children are at particular risk for excessive screen usage, and the typical parent response is unfortunately counterproductive. Their extra intensity, rage to learn, quick and critical thinking, existential awareness, deep empathy, impulsivity, curiosity, creativity, and preference for unique and stimulating experiences make it difficult for them to successfully navigate a neurotypical world of education and social emotional relationships. Having a deep desire for meaningful connections but often struggling to relate to their peers, 2e children often feel lonely, bad, or broken.
Online pursuits offer a seemingly never-ending supply of interesting and varied options for 2e kids. And there, the rules are clear, removing confusion often caused by visual or auditory struggles in the non-virtual world. It allows them to process at their own speed (be it faster or slower than their neurotypical peers), the engaging content helps keep negative thoughts at bay, and they feel successful on screens. Video games provide fertile ground for immediate and constant achievement as the 2e child’s competitive nature is encouraged by opportunities to “level up.”
Think about it: If you had the choice of engaging in a positive feedback loop that engaged your hungry brain or straining and struggling to succeed and meet others’ expectations, which would you choose? Twice exceptional kids spend a lot of time feeling frustrated and lost. They don’t understand why things that are hard things for others are easy for them, and why typically easy things, like self-care and executive functioning skills, are hard. Screens can be a refuge. These reasons compound the 2e parent’s difficulty in setting limits and increase the 2e child’s challenge in meeting them—all of which has heightened the effects of Covid mitigation policies.
A typical parenting approach to setting limits—and one that doesn’t work—often includes incentives, consequences, and even in desperate moments, bribing, begging, and cajoling. These tactics encourage external motivation and often breakdown when the child no longer cares about the positive or negative outcome of their behaviors. Most importantly, they do not teach children the skills they need to regulate themselves.
Parents use this approach as a reaction to their child’s challenging behavior, including tantrums when asked to disengage, sneaking devices, or inappropriate use. Sometimes parents override systems by shutting off Wi-Fi connections or locking up devices. While these strategies may be necessary in the short term, they fail to teach self-regulation. Instead, the message is clear: “We don’t think you can regulate yourself.”
There is, however, an approach that does work. The first thing parents should do is decide on their own screen time expectations and limits. Frequently, they skip this step and try enforcing unclear rules or expectations. Consider how much time per day and per week you approve for your child to be on a screen. Where and when is it OK for your child to use a screen? The more clear and consistent parents are, the easier it is to understand for 2e kids. For instance, is it OK to use screens in the car, at the kitchen table, in a restaurant? Where should your children charge and store their devices? Are there certain sites or channels that are not appropriate for your child to access? Screen time is a privilege, and these expectations define how its earned. Once parents have ideas of what they hope for regarding screen-usage structure, it’s time to collaborate with the child. Parents of 2e children learn quickly that imposing an agenda doesn’t work. They must partner with their child to determine durable and long-lasting solutions to teach self-regulation.
Be clear that responsibilities come first, as well. If you haven’t discussed responsibilities and chores before, it’s time to broach the subject. Again, the best approach is a collaborative one. Show your child respect by including them in a discussion of your big picture for family life. What do you want for everyone and how can they help reach these goals? Talk about personal responsibilities (self-care, homework, room maintenance) and family responsibilities (pet care, kitchen care, laundry). Make it clear that there are expectations around these responsibilities. If one is taking out the garbage, for example, that could mean doing it on Tuesday nights, tying a double knot, and always replacing the bag. The more specific the expectations are, the more likely your child will meet them. The same structure should exist for privileges.
Whatever the expectations, these too should be collaboratively agreed upon. Talk with them about about the time of day, duration, requirements for disengaging, and appropriate content. When expectations include time limits, this raises the question of what your child will do during their free time. Rather than parenting from a place of guilt or anxiety and saying something like “You used to love to do these different activities” or “If you game all the time, you won’t have any friends,” try talking about your children’s outside interests. Help them find enrichment programs that speak to their strengths—what they love rather than what you think they should pursue. This requires listening and observing your child and understanding their interests. Sit with them, for example, when they play an online game to learn what they love about it. If your child becomes emotionally dysregulated, point out the fact that gaming should be fun and remind them that it’s a form of entertainment. When setting limits, ask your child how you can help them be successful.
Lastly, make sure your twice-exceptional child has opportunities to succeed several times a day. If the only place they feel capable is in front of a screen, it will be extraordinarily difficult to limit their screen exposure. Invite them to do things with you. Notice the positives—even when there are negatives—and remember to allow them unstructured, free-flowing time in areas of passion.
This epidemic within the pandemic occurred worldwide, and many parents of twice-exceptional children feel like they are still fighting a tidal wave. But there’s a path to relief. Instead of approaching screen time with rigidity, get your child to be more flexible by listening to their perspective, sharing your concerns, and together—slowly and steadily—deciding on healthy, realistic rules that support the 2e child’s need to feel successful. Then follow those rules. This is the best approach to address excessive screen time for these students.