How to Deal With a Kid Who is Addicted to Screens

Dear Kid Whisperer,

My seven-year-old son loves his iPad so much that he has started to ignore the rest of the world. He doesn’t care about anything else. We recognized this as a problem, but my husband and I have had a very hard time taking the iPad away. My son goes into hysterics when we do, and he will scream and yell until he gets it back. We went to family therapy about this. We tried talking to him about how using the iPad so much is bad for him and how he should play outside, or go to a friend’s house, etc. This does not help. What should we do?    -Tana, Des Moines, Iowa

Tana,

I am so sorry that you have had to struggle through this, and I am sorry to have to tell you the following:

Your kid is a drug addict.

I don’t mean this in some cute or hyperbolic way. I mean that, like millions of children in the US, and tens of millions of kids around the world, your kid is physically addicted to the dopamine response he gets when he is in front of screens.

When you see your kid as an addict, you can begin to see why the things you tried (counseling and reasoning with him) are bound to fail: words and lectures can’t compete with the giant blast of dopamine he receives from his screens. Imagine the effectiveness of someone outlining all of the negative outcomes of using crack to a crack addict. That wouldn’t work either.

Instead of adding, subtract. I suggest using this equation:

His Screens – His Screens = No Screens.

If you are an average Mom of the 21st century, you may think, “What? No screens? That’s crazy! What will he do all day?”

If you have this reaction, my responses are these:

What part of “your son is a drug addict” did you not understand? If your kid was a crack addict, (crack cocaine use also raises dopamine levels in a similar way to screens), you wouldn’t suggest that your kid do a little bit of crack every day.

As for what he will do all day, my answer is that he will spend his time doing what 100% of kids have done all day every day for all of human history until the invention of Pong in 1972.

Of course, addicts don’t like it when their drugs are taken away. Here’s how to deal with the inevitable resistance of removing a drug from an addict. I call this method “Nope Therapy.”

Kid: I can’t believe you took my smartphone and my tablet away. No other parent on the planet would do this!

Kid Whisperer: I hear ya.

Kid: I WANT MY STUFF BACK RIGHT NOW!

Kid Whisperer: Nope.

Kid: I WILL SUE YOU! I WILL SUE ALL OF YOU!!

Kid Whisperer: Nope.

Kid: THAT DOESN’T EVEN MAKE SENSE!

Kid Whisperer: Nope.

Kid: I’M GOING TO RUN AWAY FROM HOME UNLESS YOU GIVE ME BACK MY SCREENS!

Kid Whisperer: Nope.

“Nope Therapy” not only tells your kid “No,” but the last two letters also say, “…and this is your problem.”
Make sure your kid has a nice, safe place for a tantrum, as he is sure to have one: he will be going into withdrawal. You may want to taper down to zero screen time over time to lessen the tantrums.

Of course, allow for screen time for homework if necessary, but use all technical and practical means of monitoring to make sure he only uses the computer appropriately.

You may, for some reason, feel that perhaps a bit of screen time is OK. If so, fine: just closely monitor and use the above script if he argues when you shut it down. If you do allow for some screen time, I would just ask, “What good is that time doing?”