Why kids can’t seem to turn off their screens

By Margie DeSantis

Screen time is a part of many kids’ days. It’s natural for them to get caught up in a game or show and have trouble turning it off. But some kids have a very hard time when screen time is over. They may ignore directions to turn off their screens or become angry or upset when they’re forced to.

You may wonder why your child has trouble ending screen time. Is your child just being defiant? Or is something else going on?

Learn more about why some kids struggle when screen time ends and what you can do. 

Why kids can’t stop screen time

There are many reasons kids don’t turn off what they’re watching or playing, including simply not wanting to. But often, there’s something getting in the way. When kids have a very hard time stopping screen time, it may be for one of these reasons:

Trouble with hyperfocus: Some kids tend to hyperfocus on things they find interesting, even if they have trouble focusing on other things. They get so immersed in what they’re doing that they can’t pull themselves away. Hyperfocus is very common in kids with ADHD.

Trouble letting go: Similarly, kids may get so involved that they can’t stop thinking or talking about what they’re watching or playing. This behavior of “getting stuck” on something is called perseveration, and it’s not done on purpose to be defiant.

Trouble following directions: When kids don’t follow directions, it can seem like laziness or lack of respect. But if they struggle with directions often, it could be trouble with executive function. This is a group of skills that includes memory and attention.

Your child may not remember what you just said. Or they may not “hear” the directions because they’re distracted and not focusing on them.

Trouble switching gears: You may notice that your child struggles to switch from screen time to something else. They could be having trouble with flexible thinking, which makes it hard to adjust from one activity to another.

Trouble managing emotions: Some kids have a hard time managing emotions, and it often comes down to trouble with self-control. Your child may be frustrated or unhappy about ending screen time, which can quickly turn into anger.

How to help kids transition from screen time

Here are some simple ways to make the transition after screen time easier for you and your child:

  • Before screen time starts, set clear expectations about how much time your child gets. Give your child a five-minute warning when time is almost up.
  • Or you can look for a natural stopping point — like the end of a round in a game or the end of a show. Agree ahead of time that this is when your child will turn off the screen.
  • Make sure your child is paying attention when you say to turn it off. Have your child look at you and repeat what you’ve said.
  • If nothing happens, go over and put a hand on your child’s shoulder. Try not to yell from another room or talk while you’re doing other things.
  • Let your child know what to do after turning off the screen. It’s easier to “shift gears” if there’s something specific to shift to.
  • Visual tools may work better for your child than instructions. Together, you can make a written or picture schedule of when it is and isn’t screen time. When screen time is over, you can hold up the schedule and remind your child without saying a word.

These aren’t the only ways to help your child. Find ways to help your child follow directions. Learn more about trouble with listening. And see how you can help your child with ADHD manage screen time.

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    About the author

    About the author

    Margie DeSantis is an associate editor at Understood.

    Reviewed by

    Reviewed by

    Kristin J. Carothers, PhD is a clinical child psychologist devoted to the destigmatization of mental health problems.