On the morning of her fifth grade moving up ceremony, we presented our rising middle-schooler with her first phone – a hand-me-down device with a sliding keyboard. She would be able to call home and text a bit with her friends. The phone had no bells or whistles and its role in her life was simple – she could reach us and we could reach her. She was thrilled.
The phone’s limitations became apparent fairly quickly. As our daughter got older and her social life began to blossom, she lamented the fact that group texts caused her obsolete phone to freeze, precluding her from participating in the conversations. Middle school was enough of a challenge – did we really want to make it more difficult for her to navigate the sea of tween social life by leaving her out of the technology loop?
It was about this time that our second daughter finished elementary school and, like her older sister, she would be receiving her own phone. The rub was that it was now seemingly more cost-effective to activate an old smartphone than purchase a new flip phone. After quite a bit of deliberation, both girls became proud owners of digital windows to the world.
With that ownership came plenty of rules. Rules about social media, about how late was too late to text, about the type of content that was OK to share, about the indelible mark that can be made via the Internet. Still, despite our deep commitment to being an unplugged family, the glowing rectangles soon became a ubiquitous presence in our home.
Over the holidays we noticed that our fourth grader was always around – reading on the couch by the fire, helping us cook, or figuring out Christmas carols on her cello – while the other two girls spent far too much time holed up in their rooms. It was then that we decided that, starting in the New Year, the phones were coming out of the bedrooms. We were concerned about the way their devices were taking them out of the family mix.
At the same time, I was acutely aware that my own tech activities decreased my ability to be present. As a writer, my work frequently takes me into the digital space and I was finding it increasingly more difficult to set my own tech boundaries, checking my email “just one more time” while I made dinner or popping onto Twitter or Facebook while helping kids with homework. My kids knew when I wasn’t paying attention – when I was more engaged in whatever was on the screen than I was with them. Denial about my electronic dependence appeared in euphemisms like “multitasking,” when the reality was that I was too frequently distracted from focusing on what mattered to me the most – my kids and my spouse.
How often do you describe your family’s attachment to devices in the language of addiction? We jokingly refer to Facebook as “Crackbook” and experience feelings of anxiety when our phone batteries run low with no docking stations in sight, all the while uncomfortably aware of how often we allow our kids and ourselves to overdose on technology.
Too much tech causes our attention spans to deteriorate, marring our ability to focus for sustained amounts of time. Tech has also begun to replace essential human interaction. How often do you see kids – and parents – in restaurants staring at a device while they wait for their food to arrive rather than talking with one another? How often are long car rides spent focused on screens rather than lost in thought looking out the window? How often do you see parents ignoring their children’s attempts for attention, too absorbed in their phones to notice?
We’re turning to tech rather than to our families far too frequently and, in turn, have become reliant on the distraction and instant gratification it provides. Sadly, while everyone is looking down, heads in the “tech nod,” we’re missing out on opportunities for deep connections with those we love and rich experiences in the world around us.
This isn’t to imply that our electronic devices are the embodiment of evil. There is a great deal of good that has come from advances in technology and the communication and connectivity those advances have brought. The danger is when we use tech as a substitute for face-to-face interaction when we begin to value our online lives over our family lives, and when we find ourselves giving in to the relentless demands on our attention our devices make.
So how do we find this much-needed balance? Creating new boundaries can be challenging, especially when the groundwork for a tech-heavy household has already been established. It will take work and commitment on the part of parents along with a few family conversations, one which will likely involve your kids getting defensive and pulling out all their many objections including “but everyone else is allowed to ...” At the same time, as parents, we need to stop rationalizing our own compulsive tech habits and model what a healthy relationship with our devices looks like.
A tech-free life is impractical and unnecessary, yet the pull of screens and social media is strong, for adults as well as for kids, and a healthy balance needs to be found. The goal is to figure out ways to use tech mindfully – to take charge of it rather than letting it take charge of us.
With that in mind here are some tips to help you implement a family digital detox.
Model moderation for your kids. Be mindful of how often you turn to your tech throughout the day and make an effort to find kid-free times to read your emails or peruse your social media feeds. Resist “just checking” your phone during prime family time. Chat with your kids while waiting at the orthodontist or in line at the grocery store rather than turning to your phone for distraction.
Turn off notifications. It’s tough to fight the urge to respond to every ping from your phone or tablet. The solution is to disable your device’s notifications. If your tech doesn’t beckon you with a ding, you’ll be less likely to turn your attention away from your kids at the moments when they need you to be fully present.
Make mealtimes tech-free. This goes for restaurants as well as at home. The family conversations that happen when everyone is around the table together are far too important to be replaced by electronics.
Keep screens out of the bedrooms. Tech use is intrinsically solitary and isolating, for adults as well as kids. When phones stay in the common areas of the home, kids disappear less and we don’t need to worry as much about what they’re doing in their rooms. At the same time kids don’t need the constant distractions their phones produce – especially when doing homework. This one applies to parents, too. Stop taking your phone to bed.
Unplug as a family. Choose a day or evening (or two, or three) each week when everyone unplugs. Have a family game night or a family movie night. Make a plan to have a fun, tech-free outing. Or go even further and unplug during your next family vacation. Remember what it is like to enjoy one another’s company without the pull of a screen.
Get outside. Send the kids out after school to play. Go for a family bike ride. Play Capture the Flag in the yard. Head out for a hike. Take the dog for a walk. Make time in nature a priority ... and leave the tech in the house.
Gina DeCaprio Vercesi is a Westchester-based educator and mother, and creator of the Kids Unplugged program. Kidsunplugged.org.