This Summer, Take a Tech Vacation

by carolyn jabs

Interactive technology has a way of taking over family time. It starts innocently enough. Someone—maybe you—checks an e-mail, opens a laptop, answers a text, fires up a video game or pulls out a set of headphones. Before you know it, family members are sitting in living rooms or around restaurant tables unable to interact with each other because they are so busy interacting with devices.

Some people regard this trend as nothing short of a moral issue. Their recommendation is that parents “Just say No!” to all kinds of technology. In most families, it’s not that simple. The reason everyone uses interactive devices is because they create genuine benefits. The risk is that those benefits are crowding out other things that matter—a little like the kid who fills his plate so full of mashed potatoes that there’s no room for salad.

One way to get a grip on whether interactive technology is improving or undermining family life is by taking a Tech Vacation. Call it a time out or a black out or even digital detox. The question you want to answer—and it really is a question—is whether interactive gadgets are making life better for your family.

Summer is a great time to experiment with these ideas because disconnecting won’t put schoolwork at risk, and people still accept “I was on vacation” as a reason for being out of touch. Rather than huddling with your spouse and trying to make rules, involve your kids in exploring what matters to your family and how technology fits into that picture. Start by asking what counts as interactive technology. Cellphones? Laptops? Video games? MP3 players? Digital cameras? Land phones? TV? Talk about what it would be like to live without each one of these devices.

Now design a family experiment to see what it feels like to be unplugged. Decide on a time frame. Some families start by turning off all interactive devices (including the TV) at a specific time each day. The obvious choice is dinner time, but you might also consider establishing a family time for cooking, reading, playing board games or even housecleaning. If possible, stretch the experiment and plan an Unplugged Day or even an entire week.

To get best results on a longer Tech Vacation, involve your kids in setting ground rules. Will you go cold turkey or will everyone get an interactive window each day? Will you take a cellphone for “emergencies”? (If so, be sure to define that term.) Will you have different rules for travel and “being there?” Keep these discussions light. The goal isn’t to demonize a particular interactive technology (or the people who use it.) Instead, try to foster an attitude of curiosity and exploration. Here are some other tips for getting the most out of your Tech Vacation.

Plan ahead. Obviously, adults need to tell clients and co-workers when they will be “off the clock.” Teens might also want to warn friends that they are going offline. The comments and reactions they get can also be part of the experiment.

Notice emotions. Many people initially feel anxious when they are disconnected from interactive devices. Thinking about what you might be missing is part of the withdrawal process. It may be uncomfortable but hang in to see what’s on the other side.

Collect props. Children who are accustomed to spending all their discretionary time with gadgets may be at a loss for what to do. Pull out age appropriate board games, puzzles, construction toys and art supplies. Give older children a sketchpad or a notebook so they can record their feelings. Or start a family journal in which everyone makes notes about how the vacation is going.

Share a project. Plan an activity that requires family members to cooperate to reach a goal. If possible, do something outdoors. Go for a hike. Paddle a canoe to a picnic destination. Be flexible about the goal so it can change if family members come up with different ideas about what they want to do.

Be present. Interactive devices pull attention away from away from physical reality. Think about reconnecting with your own sensations. It may seem hokey, but try deep breathing together. Or sing. Or skip. Notice every detail about your surroundings—and each other.

Talk to each other—or not. If conversation feels self-conscious, try using prompts like those available in the game Table Topics. Or sit with the silence and see what emerges. Just thinking your own thoughts in each other’s company can feel pretty good once you get used to it.

At the end of your Tech Vacation, take stock. What did each person enjoy about being unplugged? Which devices and experiences were missed most? Why? Some family members may be excited about “found” time and new powers of concentration. Others may realize that being plugged in actually enriches their family connections.

In either case, use your new insights to reconfigure family time so everyone gets both the benefits of interactive technology and the rewards off the grid. If you do that, your Tech Vacation will create the contentment that comes from knowing that you—and not your interactive devices—are making decisions about what’s best for your family.

Carolyn Jabs, M.A., has been writing about families and the Internet for over fifteen years. She is the mother of three computer-savvy kids. Other Growing Up Online columns appear on her website www.growing-up-online.com.