‘The day I realised my toddler was addicted to the iPad’: Three-year-old William tugged at the duvet and woke his father demanding the tablet… at 4am
- William Adams, 3, had become increasingly obsessed with iPad
- He would search for it at night and could turn violent when it was rationed
- Parents Guy and Katie confiscated it and William whined, begged and cried
- Eventually, slowly re-introduced the device in a controlled fashion
The sense of shame and sadness which came over me when I realised that my infant son was an addict will stay with me forever.
It happened at the ungodly hour of 4 o’clock one morning earlier this month, when my wife Katie and I were disturbed by the click of our bedroom door opening, followed by the patter of tiny feet.
I opened my eyes to find our three-year-old, William, standing at the bedside table in his pyjamas. He pulled the duvet, to make sure I was awake, then grabbed my hand.
‘Daddy,’ he announced, with a sense of urgency in his little voice. ‘I need the iPad.’
I checked my watch, stumbled to my feet, and marched him back to his room.
‘You don’t need the iPad,’ I told William, tucking him back into bed. ‘You need to lie down and go to sleep. It’s the middle of the night.’
At 7am, my alarm clock rang. Getting out of bed, I noticed something amiss: the white iPad, which I had left to charge overnight on the sofa next to our bed, had vanished.
I walked to the sitting room. There sat William, cross-legged on the floor, with the stolen device in his hands. He was playing a noisy video game called Peppa Pig’s Puddle Jump. The battery was already half empty, suggesting he’d been using it for at least two hours.
When I took the iPad away, he began to cry. Then he started screaming: ‘I want it back!’ Repeatedly. The tantrum continued so long I could barely feed him breakfast.
At school later that day, a nursery teacher observed that William had been lethargic. ‘Is everything all right at home?’ she asked Katie.
My wife had no idea how to respond.
William has, for most of his short life, been a wonderful, loving boy whose sense of fun and fascination rubs off on everyone who meets him. But lately, his behaviour started to concern us.
Although our son had never previously got up at 4am to play with an iPad, in recent weeks, he had become increasingly obsessed with the device (and uninterested in other toys).
We’d begun to worry about the way he’d started losing his temper, and sometimes turned violent – stamping his feet and even hitting me and my wife – when we tried to ration it. Before supper that night came another episode.
While Katie was cooking, William crept back into our bedroom, found the iPad, and began playing the video game Angry Birds – a hugely addictive game, where little birds are fired, via a slingshot, at piles of pigs (OK, leave it there).
Guy Adams at homer with his wife Katie, son William, 3, and 18-month-old daughter Megan
When his 18-month-old sister, Megan, disturbed him, he hit her. She began to cry. Hearing the commotion, Katie ran to the room and confiscated the iPad. William threw his second major tantrum of the day. It was still going on when I arrived home from work half an hour later.
‘We can’t let this carry on,’ she shouted, over the screams. ‘For the sake of our marriage, and our sanity, it has to stop.’
I looked at the faces of our children, streaked with tears. She was right. ‘I’m afraid to say,’ I said, ‘that William has become an iPad addict.’
Now I am fully aware that a great many readers will greet this with a healthy snort of derision. It is, they will perhaps say, preposterous to suggest that a three-year-old, who happens to be excessively fond of a noisy piece of electronics, is suffering from some sort of dependency.
Others may argue that – by ascribing my toddler’s display of aggression and disobedience to an ‘addiction’ – I am somehow seeking to duck responsibility for his behaviour, or my parenting. They are all entitled to their opinion. I would ask only that they read our story, and speak to other parents with children of a similar age, before leaping to conclusions. For William’s iPad addiction is, I believe, symptomatic of a trend that will affect a generation of youngsters.
He was born in June 2010, just two months after Steve Jobs had released the first Apple iPad. For most of his life, our household has contained four touch-screen devices: Katie and I each have an iPad and an iPhone.
William is, therefore, an unwitting pioneer: one of the first children to have spent his entire existence surrounded by computers designed to be so easy to use that even babies can control them.
This is already affecting most young children. Today, one in three infants uses an iPad before they are able to talk. Two thirds use one regularly by the age of seven. There are at least 40,000 children’s games available in iTunes.
The devices are so effective at occupying small children that many parents in our circle jokingly refer to the iPad as their ‘iNanny’.
Indeed, so universal is Apple’s reach that, before Christmas, a U.S. company called CTA began selling a potty with an iPad stand attached.
When using the device William would enter a sort of hypnotic trance, ignoring attempts at conversation
The key to the device’s huge appeal to children, according to experts, is its ‘multi-touch’ screen, which can understand even the smear of an infant’s fist.
‘In the old days, 2½ years was considered the floor at which a child could use a mouse and keyboard and therefore work a computer,’ says Warren Buckleitner, editor of Children’s Technology Review. ‘Now, even a baby can control one.’
For every parent, however, this development presents a dilemma.
We all want children growing up in a connected world to become computer literate. And it seems churlish to prevent them benefiting from the roughly 40,000 ‘educational’ apps available on the iPad.
When William was learning to talk, for example, he was helped by an app called Talking Carl, in which a red cartoon character listened to him making noises and then parroted back an identical noise.
He learned how to distinguish circles from squares by watching dancing cartoon shapes on the YouTube app. While grasping the alphabet, he became a dab hand at an iPad game called ABC Letters.
But William’s relationship with the iPad became unhealthy.
When using it, he would enter a sort of hypnotic trance, ignoring attempts at conversation.
If we took it away, he would lose his temper. When it wasn’t around, he’d constantly request it. William also learned to download his own apps – mostly trashy games.
He bought about a dozen, at £1.99 a time, until I worked out how to password-protect our iTunes purchases.
He’s not alone in this. A fortnight ago, it emerged that Apple paid almost £20 million to settle a class action lawsuit brought by 30,000-odd U.S. parents whose children had downloaded apps without permission, sometimes spending more than £600.
The iPad has become a curse, rather than a blessing, to far too many families. The day after we were rudely awakened at 4am, I decided that enough was enough, and scoured the internet for parenting advice.
There are scores of message boards dedicated to the topic of iPad addiction, filled with a cacophony of differing opinion, from child psychologists and parents alike. But one site stood out.
It was the home of Dr Richard Graham, a psychiatrist who runs Britain’s only rehab centre for technology addiction, at the Capio Nightingale hospital in Marylebone London. Since 2010, Graham has worked with more than 100 patients, including a four-year-old child who had developed an ‘obsession’ with her iPad.
Their condition, he says, is often similar to that of drug or gambling addicts, since it is controlled by the release of dopamine, the neurotransmitter at the centre of the brain’s reward system.
It can be particularly complex to treat, he says, because (unlike with alcohol or drugs) a sufferer cannot simply decide never to use a computer again. Instead, they must learn to establish a healthy relationship with technology.
‘I think parents need to realise, pre-natally, that iPads are going to be a part of a child’s world – just as TV, chocolate, and fizzy drinks always have been – and start thinking about how to manage that,’ he says.
Dr Graham has previously published a checklist to allow parents to gauge if a child may be developing a technology addiction. It includes five key indicators: showing a lack of interest in other activities, constantly talking about technology, displaying mood swings, withdrawal symptoms and devious behaviour. William has, at times, been guilty of all five.
After the iPad was taken away William gradually he began to realise that there were other toys in his world
Following his advice, we duly pursued a drastic course of treatment: a 72-hour ‘detox’ in which we withdrew all technology from William’s life.
The first day was brutal, he whined, he begged, he cried, and, occasionally, he descended into a full-blown rage, stamping his feet and shouting: ‘I want my iPad.’
The next 48 hours, though, were markedly better. Gradually he began to realise that there were other toys in his world.
Long-shunned puzzles, train sets and even the occasional book were pulled from dusty shelves. The tantrums gradually subsided. The demands for the device became fewer and further between. We began to believe there might be light at the end of the technology tunnel.
After that, we slowly re-introduced the iPad, but in a controlled fashion. It was banned in the hour before bedtime. The volume and brightness setting on its screen was always turned down, so as to make it less invasive, and noisy apps that encourage bad behaviour were withdrawn.
It was never to be used for more than two hours a day, eked out throughout the day. And on two days a week, his life was kept completely ‘tech free’, in what is often called the ‘5:2 screen diet’.
Most importantly, all William’s iPad use was supervised by Katie or me, a policy endorsed by Dr Rose Luckin, of the University of London, one of Britain’s foremost experts in technology and learning.
‘The iPad is actually very sharable,’ she told me. ‘You can get real benefits when you sit parents and children together and socially interact around it, and you avoid the situation where the device becomes the child’s sole focus in an anti-social way.’
We’ve been following the regime for a fortnight now. And after the tear-filled ‘cold turkey’ period, William has grudgingly accepted his new relationship with the iPad.
Earlier this week, we sat on the sofa together, playing a spelling game. After half an hour, he told me it was time to pack up and go to sleep.
The iPad will always be part of his life, but the violence, the tantrums and the 4am wake-ups are now hopefully a thing of the past.
And Katie and I will never again be employing an iNanny.