In these hyper-connected days, most vacations are highly documented through Instagram, Facebook, Twitter and more apps than I could list. But we don’t have even one picture from a family trip to Costa Rica. We put away our phones and digital devices for the trip – all of them. And without the allure of the easy camera on our phones, we simply forgot to take photos. But I don’t regret it at all because we have many memories that I can replay in my head like a slide show or You Tube video.
I see pictures of an adventurous trip down the river on a sketchy boat to see monkeys, of calling to each other as we ran through a challenging maze of towering reeds, of watching in fascination as an incredible and seemingly unending line of leaf ants carried pieces of leaves off to who knows where, of endless games of catch played in the pool with the volcano smoking in the background, of walking through the rainforest canopy, of my son’s first time boogie boarding and of the horses grazing right next to the tiny restaurant we found during an exploring hike. None of us will ever forget coming back to our rental car after dinner in the little village to find a fire dancer almost standing on the hood with blazing sticks whirling.
Those are memories that I don’t have to worry about uploading to the cloud or putting in albums. They are always there, and they are pulled out often or reviewed in family conversations.
That was our first fully unplugged family vacation almost three years ago and we’ve done several since. Having been working that year as a spokesperson for Reboot’s National Day of Unplugging (nationaldayofunplugging.com), which encourages people to take regular breaks from digital devices, I decided that we would forgo all our personal technology on this trip. That meant no phones, no tablets, no computers, and no gaming devices. It freed us from the pull of email, texts, calls and video games. We decided to not even watch movies on the computer and instead brought along card games and travel versions of board games.
Parents and their children are increasingly plugged into multiple digital devices across a variety of platforms including Instagram, Facebook, Twitter and Snapchat. Many toddlers even know how to use an iPhone or iPad before they can put together a full sentence. You see families "together" on devices everywhere. But experts warn that these digital distractions are harming interpersonal relationships, hindering youth from developing face-to-face communication skills and teaching children that disappearing into digital devices for endless hours is an appropriate pastime.
My 12-year-old cannot be imaginative or allow himself to be bored and daydream if the possibility of a digital device, TV show or video game is there. We’ve got defined tech rules in our house, but it doesn’t matter with him. If it is not his tech time, he’s asking for it, thinking about it or coming up with excuses to get online to search for something or do a "quick" thing to update his Simpsons game or whatever. When he gets it, he just can’t get off it on his own, and when we force him off, he is umm, a jerk, to be honest. There’s so much fighting between us around technology and I just wanted a break. And I wanted to see the light in his eyes again.
When we returned from the vacation, my friend asked how it was. "It was great! We didn’t fight at all!" I declared. "You and Terry?" she said, referring to my husband. "No, me and Cash." I had instituted the no-tech vacation for two reasons, so my husband and I would not be distracted by the pull of work or Facebook or texts but instead be fully present during the vacation and relax and to give my older son a break from his all-consuming addiction to video games.
When he is forced to be unplugged (and yes, he’s forced. It is never voluntary on his part), after he gets used to it and knows there is no chance, our interactions are much more pleasant because there is not the friction around technology. And more importantly, he finds other creative things to do. We sometimes do unplugged days at home and he digs up old science kits and does experiments. He finds rolls of paper and creates cartoons that span his room. He pulls out LEGOs and builds huge cities with his younger brother. In Costa Rica, he pulled out a sketchpad and drew amazing landscapes from the rainforests. He sat and did nothing, letting his mind wander. And he talked with us about something other than video games. He was a real pleasure to be around! And although he certainly didn’t buy in and moans every time I make us unplug, at the end of the time he thanks me and says, "That was fun."
The Benefits for All
The benefits aren’t just for my sons though. I hate how often people (and I include myself in this) say, "Just a minute" or "Uh huh," because they are finishing up a text, email or post. We all do it at least occasionally, no matter how much we try not to. But we didn’t do it on our unplugged vacation. We were present. We had long meals and talked. We saw others who weren’t unplugged at the table, as my son pointedly noted. But we were. And it felt good. It felt like a vacation. I didn’t have to be annoyed seeing my husband scroll mindlessly through Facebook or emails while the kids and I waited for him to finish. And I reached a level of relaxation that just isn’t possible when I’m plugged in. I had told everyone I’d be offline and I didn’t have to worry that someone would expect me to respond. I was able to put work in another compartment and actually decompress because I wasn’t sneaking looks at work emails that would feel urgent even if they weren’t. My shoulders were finally released from their perpetually stress-hunched position. I wasn’t pausing everyone in the moment to take photos and post them or texting friends about what we were doing. I was too busy doing it!
It is certainly easier to be unplugged when you are in an exotic location, but we’ve done it on more mundane trips and even at home for a few days. We did it for a week in Portland and it was one of my favorite trips ever, because at the end of it I felt like we had really spent a lot of time being truly together.
So often I feel like I’m just getting by, juggling a full-time job, cooking, cleaning, helping with homework, running kids to activities, etc., that we don’t get enough time just playing or sitting around together laughing. There are moments here and there, but when we are on an unplugged vacation, at the end, I feel much more satisfied and emotionally full and don’t have that nagging sad feeling when the kids and my husband go out the door to school and work on the first day after break.
I’ll be honest that it isn’t always easy to take an unplugged vacation. It takes effort and certainly more time and engaged parenting. But it is worth it. In my work on unplugging, I’ve spoken with dozens of children of all ages, from preschoolers to high school students who feel like they are second in importance to their parents’ digital devices. It is heartbreaking. I was brought nearly to tears by a group of eighth-graders who shared one after another how alone they felt at home because their parents were always consumed with their computers and phones.
"My mom, when she is on her phone (texting or emailing or on Facebook), she doesn’t even talk to me. I will try to talk to her about important stuff but she’s on her phone and she doesn’t even look up. It happens a lot," said one girl.
"My dad will just ignore me when I’m trying to talk to him. I don’t think it is intentional. He will be on his email or on Facebook, and there is just a big silence when I say something. I just get angry," said a classmate.
It isn’t that children should expect to get their parents’ attention 24/7. That’s not healthy, either. But they should be able to get sustained attention sometimes. Now there is always the third wheel along with families – the ever-present smart phone, with its incessant pinging, ringing and binging.
Here some tips if you’d like to escape your plugged-in lifestyle:
1. Get buy-in.
You may not get buy-in from your kids, and that’s okay. You are the parent. I had many people tell me that they would love to do an unplugged vacation but their kids would never allow it. You should have a family discussion and tell the kids why you are doing it and let them be heard. But again, you are the parent, you can decide. You do have to get buy-in from your spouse, or other adults you are going to be with. We visited some friends in their home in the mountains one winter and their kids were on the iPads literally for hours on end, so of course our boys wanted to do the same. When my husband saw me getting agitated about it, he told me that I had to mellow out and let them just do what they wanted, that I shouldn’t "be THAT person." But it drove me crazy that we were out there in this amazing snowy wonderland (I grew up with snow and loved getting out into it) and they were just inside and online the entire time. Of course, it made it easy on us. We could just sit downstairs and hang out with our friends. But it ruined the weekend for me. So the next time we visited the same friends, I gently suggested that we make it an unplugged weekend. Luckily they agreed. They have two boys of similar ages so they all had a wonderful time sledding and having snowball fights, playing Risk and Monopoly and a family game of Headbanz.
2. Lay out your rules ahead of time and let yourself do a modified version if needed. Some tech-free time is better than none.
While we have done completely unplugged vacations a few times, both domestically and abroad, we have also done modified versions. During our recent winter break, I decided that the last three days should be unplugged. I had had enough of the incessant video games, and I felt that I had been too plugged in to my email. I wanted to relax and for us to really connect as a family before our time off ended and we got back to the grind of juggling school and work. But it was cold, and we had been enjoying snuggling up at night for holiday specials or movies, and we love watching Colbert together. So we decided to put away our phones and computers but agreed that we could use the TV at night. But two of the three nights, we ended up playing games anyway. One night we played poker (just for chips!) until 11:30 p.m., with our 7-year-old even staying up for the family fun!
Even when otherwise fully unplugged, we sometimes use Google Maps for directions. And in our family, even when we are unplugged, we agree that podcasts or audio books are OK for travel time. We no longer allow digital technology in the car on road trips. We found that always ended in tears and fights when a device died or the kids had to stop mid-movie or before a game was over because we stopped the car for a meal or a break. Instead, we now listen to podcasts. Last year, I drove nine hours alone in the car with the kids to visit a friend in Southern California and we listened to podcasts the entire way. Highlights were a show about The Simpsons on Fresh Air, hours and hours of Wait, Wait...Don’t Tell Me!, How to Do Everything and Sporkful.
3. Plan ahead!
While I want my kids to learn to be bored and deal with it, you can’t expect kids to entertain themselves and make toys A-Team style during your entire vacation. I’m a huge collector of card games and will grab them anytime I see something interesting. Bring along games like Uno, Qwixx, Top Trumps, Play Ball and SET that fit easily into your purse or day bag. And a set of regular cards is a must for games like rummy and Egyptian War. But I’ve also got travel sets of Scrabble, Connect 4 and Battleship. We even have a Minecraft card game. And I admit to bringing full-sized board games along, too. I’m always over-weight on my luggage. I tote a little plastic football and an inflatable beach ball around, and on our last unplugged vacation, I even took a baseball bat, our gloves and a ball because my younger son is a sports fanatic. Have everyone pack books and designate quiet time when everyone reads. If you have younger kids, they can leaf through picture books or fill in sticker books or color. A few rolls of colored craft tape and a few sheets of paper can fill hours! I usually bring along a few "treasury" books of Bernstein Bears or the like for my younger son. They do double duty as our bedtime reading.
4. Be prepared to play!
This will not be the vacation where you sit around and sip margaritas or wine all day. When you are unplugged, you definitely have to work harder and be engaged. That doesn’t mean you can’t make the kids play by themselves. It is important for them to know they can’t have your attention every moment. But it does mean that you should be willing to put in more effort during the vacation.
5. Let people know you will be offline.
Be sure to let friends, family and your employers or key clients know that you will be offline and not checking email, texts or social media so they don’t wonder why you aren’t responding. Put an automated response on your email telling people when you are getting back. Give an emergency number of a hotel or other location to family members or your boss if you can. Others may reach out and wonder why you aren’t responding, but my rule is that if it isn’t someone I speak with weekly anyway, they will not think I’m dead if I don’t return a call or email while I’m gone.
6. Prepare yourself for your return.
Whether you work or not, you will likely return to a lot of emails. If you are working, try to clear your schedule for your first day back to get through emails and create a clear list of priorities. Schedule a call or meeting with your boss or colleagues to brief them on what came through while you were gone and to get up to speed on what you missed.
But unplugging isn’t just for vacation! Reboot’s National Day of Unplugging is coming up from sundown March 4 to sundown March 5. The goal of the project is to encourage people to be more mindful of their technology use and to recharge themselves and reconnect in person, face to face with the people that are important to them. Try taking some unplugged time in March. And then take it with you on vacation!
Tanya Schevitz, a Peninsula mother of two, is a spokesperson for the National Day Of Unplugging.