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This is what happened when we did a digital detox on our 8 year old

15 June 2018

I’m not sure what it was that tipped me over the edge back in October 2017 but I all I wanted to do was throw the iPad off the White Cliffs of Dover never to be seen again.

I was suddenly thinking of the movie The Gods Must be Crazy (surely I am too young to remember a movie from 1980?) where a coca-cola bottle falls from an airplane and ends up the hands of Kalahari tribesmen. At first they were fascinated by this strange object but soon it starts to cause conflict. They finally decide it must be cursed and a bushman gets sent to dispose of it by throwing it off the edge of the world.

Getting rid of the iPad movie style:

But I digress.

Felix, aged 8, had been getting a little bit obsessed with his iPad. Despite all our best efforts to creatively limit his time and the apps he was accessing nothing worked. He always wanted more. It’s not that we let him use it excessively so it wasn’t a question of cutting down on time it was that he couldn’t stop thinking about when he would have it next. I was constantly having to say no. He was getting aggressive. And it was getting harder to get him to do other things. I had enough.

He went cold turkey.

I had probably read one too many articles about how we addicted to our screens. The dopamine hits experienced when playing Minecraft (or checking social media) are similar to those that gambling and drug addicts experience. Surely if our kids had any kind of addiction we would do whatever necessary to help them out? So why not with tech?

I told him what was happening in his brain to make him want the iPad so he understood that it wasn’t his fault. I explained the concept of addiction and told him we were going to sort it out.

He didn’t actually ask me once for the iPad but he did find it hard at first. He was used to having it to relax when first back from school. This wasn’t easy to replace. He would come home and say ‘what can I do to relax?'. So I let him half an hour of television and then he’s ready for the rest of his day. And it became easier to encourage him to do other activities.

The changes we have seen have been remarkable:

  • He sleeps at least an hour longer. I am convinced that his brain was wired to wake up extra early just because he knew he was likely to get the iPad at this time when we were all desperate for sleep or were busy getting ourselves ready for the day.
  • He reads a lot more. He even turned up at our bed one Sunday morning clutching a book asking where he could read. He will read in the morning and likes to go to bed earlier now so he can read there too.
  • He is much calmer overall.
  •  He spends more time doing puzzles, playing cards and board games.
  • He is being more creative and tells me he is currently writing ‘a series like Harry Potter’ (so he tells me).
  •  He doesn’t normally opt for drawing or colouring but when we were in Venice at half-term he spontaneously started drawing a self-portrait in the visitor book of the Palazzo Fortuny. This was very unusual for him.

And this is what offline travel looks like. Whereas there would normally have been an iPad in the mix this is what we took with us at half-term:

A better kind of screen time. A favourite from when I was growing up - the Little Professor maths calculator:

We even had to find a bookshop in Venice with English language children’s books to find him more reading material. It was a nice problem to have.

And I finally know how to play Uno!

I think cold turkey worked so well because there was no option to get his hands on the iPad. Even five minutes a day would have fuelled his desire to have more. It really was a case of all or nothing and I think this is why we struggled in the past to come to a happy compromise.

His only interaction with the iPad during the cold-turkey period was to build lego as there is no other way to get hold of the instruction manual sadly.

His full cold turkey experience went on for a good 4 to 5 months.

And even now as I write this 9 months after we kicked off this process he still doesn't not have any regular screen time. But we are more relaxed about letting him have short snippets on super educational and always accompanied screen time. He is very happy with these boundaries. He has since developed a keen interest in Chess and solving Rubik's cubes of all shapes and sizes.

Why I am sharing this with you?

I know from recent conversations with friends that so many are struggling with the same problem and if this encourages you to take action then great. I am pleased that we were brave enough to do it. I feel like we have the real Felix back.

We touch on this topic in episode 3 of The Curious Parent Podcast in which counsellor Vicky Bellman and I discuss tackling tech at home.

I'd love to know how you tackle screen time in your family?