This seems to be the year for digital detox. A surprising number of people are blogging(!) about digital overload and their efforts to wean themselves and their families from its harmful effects. Even Google encourages its employees to unplug during the workday by providing everything from bicycle paths to on-site massage services.
Our love-hate relationship with technology isn’t new. Every new tool is embraced by some and denounced by others. The truth is that people can lead responsible, rewarding lives with or without technology. The question is always whether a tool helps people do what they want to do. And, of course, that varies tremendously depending on personality, stage of life, and other variables.
Keeping this perspective is especially important—and challenging—for parents whose role as technology gatekeepers changes as kids grow up. For children under 6, parents have to exercise discipline—usually over themselves. How often will you buy a little peace by encouraging your child to watch TV, play video games, or fool with a cell phone? It’s not that young children should never do these things, but little kids need three-dimensional play, as well, and plenty of time with real people eager to talk with them. From ages 6 to 12, children benefit from supervised access to technologies that help them succeed in school, make friends, and develop confidence in their capabilities.
When parents set and enforce appropriate limits, they keep kids and teens from being sucked into a black hole in which technology extinguishes other interests. You can do this by:
- Having everyone unplug during meals and other family events
- Keeping technology out of bedrooms
- Enforcing reasonable bedtimes
- Expecting your child to engage in a physical activity every day, whether it’s a team practice or simply walking the dog after dinner
In adolescence, young people come to terms with who they are. Some are exhilarated by marathon gaming sessions or multi-tasking with social media. Others need long stretches of screen-free time to be in touch with their own thoughts. Teens really can’t know what works for them without some experimentation. Parents can help by encouraging kids to think about what matters in their lives. How does technology support their goals? How does it get in the way?
Ways to unplug and tech alternatives—>
Ways to unplug
At all ages, parents can make it clear that use of technology should always be a choice and not a compulsion. In a life that has only so much time, everyone has to use it wisely. Technology is seductive; sometimes the only way to get perspective is to step away and think about whether it is serving us—or we are serving it. Here are some suggestions about how to do this:
1. Commit to daily quiet time. It takes discipline to resist the call of email, Facebook, and reality TV, but it’s worth cultivating. Start by establishing your own device-free time. It might be the first 15 minutes of the day, the stretch between getting home and eating dinner or the half hour before bed. Consider spending the time in mindful activity: meditating, praying, looking out a window, writing in a gratitude journal. Tell your kids what you’re doing. Invite them to join you or to find their own quiet time.
2. Do your own research. Many schools urge parents to participate in events such as National Day of Unplugging (March 23-24), Digital Detox Week (April 22-28), Screen-free Week (April 30-May 6), or Fallback Weekend (November 3-4). Events like these offer a built-in opportunity to talk about what technology means in your household. If unplugging for an entire day or weekend feels like too big a step, use the time to do your own research. Track how long family members spend on video games, television, social networking, online homework, and email. Call a family meeting to discuss your findings and decide whether adjustments should be made. (Be open to what your children say about your use of technology, too.)
3. Brainstorm tech alternatives. People who have become attached to their digital lives may feel anxious—or even hostile—if you ask them to unplug. Be prepared with engaging, age-appropriate alternatives such as puzzles, magic tricks, board games, crafts, and books. Consider hands-on hobbies such as cooking or gardening. Explore your community or find a volunteer project you can do as a family. (If you struggle in finding alternatives, check out these 50+ ideas.)
4. Consider a digital vacation. A growing number of resorts are making a virtue out of freedom from WiFi, TV, and even phones. On the Caribbean islands of St. Vincent and the Grenadines, hotel guests actually get a guidebook that reminds them how to have fun without technology. Of course, your family can get similar results for less money by going camping (even in the backyard), renting a nearby cabin that’s out of WiFi range, or booking a vacation at a working farm. (Check out ideas at Rural Bounty or Agritourism World).
Striking a balance
The point of these exercises isn’t to demonize technology. Television, video games, social networks, cell phones, and all the rest have a legitimate role to play in healthy, happy lives. Still, you and your kids are most likely to achieve digital balance if you take periodic breaks and ask some fundamental questions:
- How does our family use technology?
- Is it improving our relationships?
- Is it crowding out things that matter?
Teaching kids to pause every now and then to ask thoughtful, reflective questions about their digital lives is probably the best way to be sure their long-term relationship with technology will be constructive and enriching.
Carolyn Jabs, M.A., raised three computer savvy kids, including one with special needs. Visit her website to read other columns.