Letters from Maine

Impulsivity, screen time, and sleep


If you are still struggling to understand the ADHD phenomenon and its meteoric rise to prominence over the last 3 or 4 decades, a study published in the September 2019 Pediatrics may help you make sense of why you are spending a large part of your professional day counseling parents and treating children whose lives are disrupted by their impulsivity, distractibility, and inattentiveness (“24-hour movement behaviors and impulsivity.” doi: 10.1542/peds.2019-0187). Researchers at the Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario (Canada) Research Institute used data collected over 10 years in 21 sites across the United States on more than 4,500 children aged 8-11 years, looking for possible associations between impulsivity and three factors – sleep duration, screen time, and physical activity.

Young boy sitting on sofa and using laptop Goads Agency/Getty Images

They found that children who were exposed to fewer than 2 hours of recreational screen time each day and slept 9-11 hours nightly had significantly reduced scores on a range of impulsivity scores. While participating in at least 60 minutes of vigorous physical activity per day also was associated with less impulsivity, the effect added little to the benefit of the sleep/screen time combination. Although these nonpharmacologic strategies aimed at decreasing impulsivity may not be a cure-all for every child with symptoms that suggest ADHD, the data are compelling.

I hope that the associations these Canadian researchers have unearthed is not news to you. But their observation that 30% of the sample population met none of the recommendations for sleep, screen time, and activity and that only 5% of the sample did suggests that too few of us are delivering the message with sufficient enthusiasm and/or too many parents aren’t taking it seriously.

Over the last several years I have been encouraged to find sleep and screen time limits mentioned in articles on ADHD for both professionals and parents, but these potent contributors to impulsivity and distractibility always seem to be relegated to the oh-by-the-way category at the end of the article after a lengthy discussion of the relative values of medication and cognitive-behavioral therapy. And unfortunately, meeting these behavioral guidelines can be difficult to achieve and cannot be subcontracted out to a therapist or a pharmacist. They require parents to set and enforce limits. Saying no is difficult for all of us, particularly those without much prior experience.

Have you observed the association between inadequate sleep, excessive screen time, and impulsivity? How robustly have you bought into the idea that more sleep and less screen time are, if not THE answers, at least are the two we should start with? Where do your recommendations about screen time, sleep, and physical activity fit into the script when you are talking with parents about their child’s ADHD-ish behaviors? Have you put them in the oh-by-the-way category?

Dr. William G. Wilkoff practiced primary care pediatrics in Brunswick, Maine, for nearly 40 years.

Dr. William G. Wilkoff

Do you ever say, “I know you may be expecting me to talk about medication at this visit, but I suggest you try setting and enforcing these limits on sleep and screen time for a few months and we will see how things are going”? “And I am going to give you some suggestions on how you can do this, and we will meet again as often as you feel is necessary to ease the process.”

Do you think you have the time to try this approach? Do you feel you have the skills to counsel on sleep and behavior? Do you think you can find someone with the time and experience who shares your priorities about screen time and sleep to do the parental coaching for you? It’s an approach worth considering when you step back and take the longer look at why we are living through this decades-long ADHD phenomenon.

Dr. Wilkoff practiced primary care pediatrics in Brunswick, Maine, for nearly 40 years. He has authored several books on behavioral pediatrics, including “How to Say No to Your Toddler.” Email him at [email protected].

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