7 Ways to Short-Circuit Kids' Mobile Addiction


toddler playing on smartphone

Children are increasingly playing games on mobile devices. (Image credit: Antonio Guillem | Shutterstock.com)

Whether it's the 7-year-old who likes to buy new moves in Bubble Witch Saga or the 10-year-old who won't stop playing Minecraft with his friends, more and more children are gaming on iPads and smartphones.

But how much mobile gaming is too much? And once parents recognize a problem, how do they wean their little ones off the crack that is Candy Crush Saga?

If kids are whining about having to go outside instead of playing video games, or if they're slacking off in school or can't sit still in a restaurant without an iPad in front of them, there might be a problem, said Patrick Markey, a psychology professor at Villanova University in Pennsylvania.

And there are several tricks to break kids of their electronic habits. From gradual transitions to replacement activities, here are seven ways parents can wean their kids off mobile devices.

Limit alone time

Family On Tablets Smartphones

With desktop computers, one of the best ways to stop compulsive gamers from overdoing it is to keep the family computer in a public place, said Ofir Turel, a researcher at the California State University, Fullerton.

"If the parents know how much time the kids play and they see what they're doing on the computer, the kids are reluctant to behave freely on the Internet," Turel said.

Unfortunately, portable devices such as smartphones or tablets are trickier to control. But if kids are playing on a parents' device, preventing kids from taking devices back to their own room can be a good way to limit game play. And consider whether the child actually needs his or her own device, most younger children don't.

Passwords protection



Kids can unwittingly rack up huge bills for hay, jewels or doughnuts in "freemium" games if they're allowed to, and though many app makers will work with parents to refund that money, companies usually make those calls on a case-by-case basis, Markey said.

"This is why passwords are wonderful," Markey said.

Passwords should be in place whenever a credit card purchase is a possibility, Markey said. It's also important not to share passwords with kids, and not to pick ones they can easily guess, Markey added. Ensuring they can only play on your device with your permission and cutting off access to those in-game extra goodies may also help limit their game play. [Password Management Software: Keep Passwords Safe]

Use transitions

drug prevention talks

(Image credit: Teen conversation photo via Shutterstock)

When children are playing a game, it's best to warn them in advance when it's time to put the game away. So, to avoid the teary meltdown, 10 minutes before dinnertime, let kids know their time is running short, said Catherine Steiner-Adair, a clinical psychologist at the author of " The Big Disconnect: Protecting Childhood and Family Relationships in the Digital Age," (Harper, 2013).

You're the boss


(Image credit: Parent Talking to Child Image via Shutterstock)

If the early warning doesn't work, there's always the nuclear option. Parents are still the ones in charge, and if gaming becomes a problem, the obvious course is to restrict access to the iPad or other mobile device, Steiner-Adair said.

"You're the boss, you just take it away," Steiner-Adair said.

Fill their time

Kids playing soccer

(Image credit: Dreamstime)

For some kids, games are more than just diversion; they offer a way to deal with stress, fill a hole in their social lives, or simply relieve hours of boredom. Taking away game-playing devices without providing any alternatives is unlikely to work in the long run.

So after restricting game play, make sure to fill that time with another activity. If the child is cut off from their phone, then sign them up for soccer practice three times a week or take them on a bike ride, Turel said.  [7 Beautiful Bike Rides]

Set a good example

family on electronic devices in bed

Nowadays, children and parents all use electronic devices. (Image credit: RimDream | Shutterstock.com)

This next tip should go without saying: Children learn from their parents. If parents have their eyes on a screen at all times, kids will learn that non-stop viewing of devices is acceptable behavior. So parents should put their phone or tablet down during meals or when spending time playing with children.

Kick your addiction

technology and children

(Image credit: Kid with smartphone Image via Shutterstock)

Parents should also take a hard look at their dependence on mobile devices. Many parents slip a mobile device into their children's hands to get some downtime without a child tugging their leg, or to get through a meal in a restaurant without flying food. That's okay in moderation, but kids eventually need to learn how to behave without these crutches, Markey said.

Letting go of the reliance on the iPad babysitter will pay dividends down the line, even if it leads to a few temper tantrums along the way, Markey said.

"It's easier in the short run to give in rather than facing the wrath of a 5-year-old," Markey said. "But at the end of the day you're the parent."

Tia Ghose
Managing Editor

Tia is the managing editor and was previously a senior writer for Live Science. Her work has appeared in Scientific American, Wired.com and other outlets. She holds a master's degree in bioengineering from the University of Washington, a graduate certificate in science writing from UC Santa Cruz and a bachelor's degree in mechanical engineering from the University of Texas at Austin. Tia was part of a team at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel that published the Empty Cradles series on preterm births, which won multiple awards, including the 2012 Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism.