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Controlling Screen Addiction

Do you often miss important appointments, punch in late to work, fix cereal again for your family’s “dinner”, stay up until 3 a.m., not even go to the bathroom when you need to and want to? Have you been mesmerized by the computer screen, feel compelled to keep on working, play solitaire or “Mienstein” repeatedly, surf the shopping channels like your fingers and the mouse are super-glued together? You wanted to stop a half hour or two hours ago, but “just once more” zips through your brain, again and again. You wish you had a wireless laptop so you could take it to bed and fall asleep playing one last game of FreeCell. Does someone shouting: “All you ever do is sit at that d—– computer!” have a familiar ring to it?

A patient I will call Dorothy phoned our office yesterday. She said the medicine the doctor had prescribed for her helped her to get to sleep, and had assisted in getting her off the computer sooner than she could before she began taking the medication. My eyes widened: what is this miraculous medication? Would it help my relationship with my non-AD/HD partner and friends? Could it salvage my self-esteem?

The doctor had prescribed one of a new “add-on” medications some forward looking psychiatrists are using in an attempt to deal with a myriad of symptoms which are troublesome: from sleep deprivation to compulsive behaviors. They may be added to a patient’s regular AD/HD medication regimen or be taken by themselves. ‘Dorothy’s’ medication might ease “binge behavior” – a particularly common way some people relax and suppress tension and stress. We can hyper-focus when using a computer, or become “screen addicted,” as Dr. Stephen Mandler recently put it when describing this phenomenon at a recent local CHADD meeting. There have been many studies which show the screen is as calming for some misfiring brains as a before dinner martini.

Martinis and medication may help some people “get off it.” Here are some other ideas:

Use screen time as a reward:
First fix the kids’ lunches or pay a couple of bills. Your reward when you have completed that task is time on the computer. Dishes washed, the dog walked, then your computer time, and the family may stop thinking the computer is an all-consuming attraction in your otherwise active life. Your intent is to focus your racing brain and the computer seems to automatically achieve that.

Before you start, set the amount of time you will “play”:
How many games will you play? We can’t expect to stop at just one; a good number for the longer games is three. Try it. When you sign on to a chat room say hi and announce when you want to leave. Ask the room members to tell you to leave when it is that time. They will!

Choose games that have a limit, intermissions or an expiration time:
Some sites have a built in termination or intermissions. Some sites sign you off after a few minutes if you dally and you will need to refresh the page. That’s a good time to stop. A ten-minute intermission is an opportunity to stand up and get out of there while the getting is good! It is the ten-second intermissions that are seductive. By the time you have had a sip of Italian soda, the game board is back in your face!

Use timers:
Be creative. Choose a timer that will attract your attention away from the computer and to the alarm. Your watch timer is too easy to turn off and reset without looking or thinking. Try a metronome; its constant tick-tock can make you sleepy and want to go to bed. An egg timer wants you to interrupt yourself every three minutes to turn it over. A darkroom timer (Gra-lab) has such a loud BEEUZZZ!!! you will have to move around to turn it off. You probably have the TV on, so pledge to stop when the half-hour program is over. There are some good timers and alarms on the web. Use one to remind you to get away from the screen. If you find it really difficult to move, set the alarm for EXPLOSIONS! or WAKE THE DEAD!

Be mindful of your feelings:
Some games or activities can cause anxiety instead of that day-dreamy or focused, centered feeling you are seeking. Stop what you are doing long enough to check in with yourself. If you are not having a lot of fun, or feeling a high level of achievement, you need to stop. Go work on your list of “Ways to Distract Myself so I am not so Easily Distracted”. Stop the games.

Get vertical! Stand up!
It works. If you can get out of the chair you can turn and walk away. No fair working on the computer standing up.

Plan a reward for signing off:
It is about planning a reward for the reward! Don’t set yourself up to do some dreadful task when you sign off the computer. “As soon as I get off the computer I will have that appointment with the accountant!” Nope. You won’t want to stop. This is called an “Open Faced Sandwich”: work on the computer, have a bowl of ice cream, then have the appointment… work on the computer, play with the cat, then sort the mismatched socks… work on the computer, go to the thrift shop, then drive your neighbor to the doctor. It is all about having a plan and knowing that you are in control.

Teach the computer to turn itself off:
You can download – try it for thirty days free of charge – software that will turn off your computer at a preset time (which you set when you still have your wits about you; and when you don’t, and it utters its three-minute warning, there isn’t time, in your by-then witless condition, to subvert your good decision of earlier in the day). It won’t turn back on until programmed to do so. It is like a timer on a safe in the bank. And it is safety for you: get to work on time, get that extra hour of sleep, or know that your family will not be lonesome for your company!

Go for it, get off it, you can do it!

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