iPad Rehab: Can it cure your kid’s screen addiction?


I recently came to the scary realization that my kids have succumbed to a disease that’s ravaging American families — mobile device addiction.  My three oldest boys’ obsession with their iPad Minis is degrading their childhood experience, stunting their social skills, and testing our abilities as parents.

So I decided to do something about it.  I took away the iPads.  Completely.   One Monday morning, I scooped them up and took them to my office. They will stay there until I think our family can have a healthy relationship with such devices.  I call this cold turkey approach iPad Rehab.

I knew this wouldn’t be easy, but the first few days were even tougher than I expected.  But I’ve learned a lot, some of which I hope will help other parents who are wrestling with this demon.

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Change requires collaboration

First and foremost:  Get on the same page with your spouse.   A few hours after I confiscated the iPads, I got a text from my wife Lynne, asking if I knew where she could find them.  My answer – “iPad Rehab, iPads are evil and they just have to go.”  That did not go over very well.  Probably because, ummm, I didn’t discuss my plan with her in advance.  Yep.  Just did it – Nike style.

We spent a good part of that morning in a text firefight. I stood my ground and was, maybe correctly, accused of being dictatorial and paternalistic.  But I understood her larger point.  Lynne is a pediatric nurse and stay-at-home mom of four boys whose life is a constant juggling act.  Sometimes she needs the breathing room that an iPad can provide.  In the end, we agreed to continue with the total ban.  Lynne, like some ancient Greek oracle, prophesized that while she knew my intentions were good, I didn’t know what I was getting myself into. 

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Her observation stuck in my head that evening at my kids’ swim meet, a five-hour affair marked by loooong stretches of boredom.  Just about every kid at the pool had his or her head buried in a digital device.  Except the Moss boys.  Needless to say, this did not go over well.  I was repeatedly pestered for a reprieve, described as some variation of “the worst dad in the world,” and offered a detailed inventory of all the devices other kids were allowed to use.   It wasn’t pretty but I held firm.

If anything, their complaining furthered my resolve.  It’s scary and maddening that my children could get this upset about being denied one piece of video tech when they were still permitted use of the TV and home gaming system.  (I’m not opposed to all video entertainment.  It’s the anti-social, isolating aspect of iPad use that truly bothers me.)

I will give my kids credit for adaptability.  Just 48 hours into the program, the boys had given up on all-out assaults and were trying salesmanship and diplomacy.  They attempted to enlist Lynne’s help, but that was a non-starter. (I think she wants to see if I stick to my guns.)  My eldest son used a car ride to gently pepper me with loaded questions about my horribly misguided policy.  “Dad, are you trying to send us back to the days of Abraham Lincoln?”


Apparently, I’m not the only parent with screen-addicted kids…

As word spread about iPad Rehab, I heard similar tales of addiction and frustration from friends, neighbors and co-workers.  This struggle has clearly hit a nerve with parents, as my first entry about iPad Rehab has already been shared over 1,000 times.  Most families seem determined to fix the problem and every one has a different approach, usually some version of placing a daily time limit on mobile device use. 

But I’m glad we did a total shutdown.  The time-limit thing can certainly work, but I notice two problems in listening to my fellow parents.  First, you will get pushback at the end of the allotted time, whether you give the kid 30 minutes or six hours of iPad time.  At the end, they will beg and scream for more.  Second, you have to pay close attention to their usage and strictly enforce it, or you lose credibility.  When the timer dings, you MUST make them get off the device – no matter what you are doing: changing the baby, taking a conference call, making dinner.  You can’t let them keep playing just to make things easier for you.

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On the contrary, as Lynne warned me, you actually have to devote more time and attention to kids during this process.  You either need to engage with them yourself — play catch, read a book together, go for a bike ride, do an art project – or guide them to non-video activities and keep tabs on them while they entertain themselves. 

I’ll be honest.  The process is going to be a little more difficult and stressful than I thought.  Specifically, it’s going to take a protracted period of real discipline to truly change things.  I’m guessing iPad Rehab will last at least until school starts in August.  But I firmly believe it’s worth it.  And we’re seeing the first signs of progress.

On the morning of Day Five, I realized my two eldest had disappeared upstairs.  Standing at foot of the stairs, I could hear them laugh and trash talk as they played a video game.  Together.  Something they had not done in forever.  That evening, the entire family gathered on the coach to watch the movie “Zootopia.”  All of us focused on one screen, enjoying both the movie and each other’s company.

Yes, this fight is definitely worth it.

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